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President Heafner's Message: "Understanding the NAEP 2018 Grade 8 Assessment Results in Civics, Geography, and U.S. History and the Implications for Social Studies Education"

On Thursday, April 23, 2020, results were released from the 2018 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Grade 8 Assessments in Civics, Geography, and U.S. History. On Monday, April 27, 2020, NCSS offered a public response to the released NAEP results. The media’s reporting of “dismal” outcomes has garnered much negative press for social studies and has portrayed the field as inadequately preparing citizens. NAEP is a policy tool frequently evoked to reform or radically change K-12 education; yet, the results are often harmfully conflated and frequently misrepresented. The (mis)construction of NAEP has damaging effects for our field; however, the policy prowess NAEP wields is undeniable. As President of National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), in this issue of TSSP, I present a brief analysis of the NAEP results for further member discussion and engagement. I draw upon my research experience with NAEP to chart a path forward for NCSS members to interpret the results and work together in strengthening social studies education. To further this ongoing dialogue about how to improve the data-informed discourse surrounding the field, a lengthier examination of NAEP will be presented in a future issue of Social Education

What is the media reporting about NAEP and what might NCSS make of this? Let’s begin with the results garnering the greatest attention. Less than a quarter of students are at or above proficient as measured by NAEP for civics and geography, while only 15% of 8th-grade students score at or above proficient in US history. NAEP 8th grade exam outcomes suggest that for every four students, three 8th graders will not have proficient or advanced knowledge and skills in civics and geography and six of seven 8th graders cannot demonstrate proficient or advanced knowledge of the foundational knowledge and skills about our country's history. Headlines on the day of the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) 2020 release of NAEP 2018 scores echoed the collective memory that 8th-grade students know little about civics, geography, and history and the majority of students failing in comparison to prior generations. For example, I offer three media headlines: 8th Graders Don't Know Much About History National Exam ShowsNAEP: 8th-graders' scores drop in US history, geography; and Eighth-graders' U.S. history and geography scores decline; civics scores flat in new Nation's Report Cards

Immediate reactions to the NAEP 2018 civics, geography, and U.S. history results are of concern and blame. NAGB’s press release highlighted the “many students are struggling to understand and explain the importance of civic participation, how American government functions, the historical significance of events, and the need to grasp and apply core geographic concepts.” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos declared NAEP social studies scores as “stark and inexcusable,” while identifying the root cause as the “antiquated approach to education” and arguing the results are proof that “we need to fundamentally rethink education in America.” As unsettling as these scores may be, extreme views only promote hysteria and hasty reform reactions that often undermine the foundations of public education and discount the credibility of educators and the field more broadly. 

NAEP results are not surprising as they reveal scores not unlike those we have seen for several decades on these same exams. The flatlined or diminished growth over time offers evidence that the decades of policy and instructional neglect of social studies in elementary school and the low priority of social studies in middle school have continued to hinder efforts to increase the percentages of students who perform at or above proficient levels on NAEP civics, geography, and US history. Social studies instructional time, course requirements, and resources have been gradually declining since the standardization movement and the subject's value diminished with each educational policy initiative that pushed civics, history, and geography out of the K-8 curriculum. Media too touted the curricular constriction demise of social studies as an attributing factor to the low NAEP proficiency in civics, history, and geography with calls for legislative action to address instructional gaps in social studies

A few exceptions in media messages were the Washington Post’s article, Betsy DeVos calls low history and civics marks ‘stark and inexcusable,’ but are NAEP scores worth fretting?, and NAEP Social Studies Scores Show a Downturn in Geography, U.S. History. But Are the Headlines ‘Hyped’?, both questioned the overall meaning of NAEP scores in light of the criticisms of the assessments and cited critiques from Sam Wineburg and Peter Levine. Stanford University education professor and founder of the Stanford History Education Group, Sam Wineburg, tempered NAEP-hype and offered skepticism by tweeting (see post below) a need to pause and reflect on the limited utility of NAEP assessments in actually measuring students’ historical thinking skills and knowledge of history.  

Critics have long questioned the value of the NAEP results, noting that proficient markers are not well defined or the exams may not measure what they claim to assess. Nevertheless, NAEP results garner national attention, media buzz, and bend the ear of policymakers. The message and reaction are consistent: The sky is falling, or about to, because American public schools are not getting the job done in whatever subject happened to be measured by NAEP. In the case of social studies tests, the foundational threads of our democracy are unraveling and education is to blame. This negative rhetoric in the media has frequently been used as policy weapons to undermine the public’s confidence in social studies education and to diminish the credibility of curriculum shifts toward a more inclusive social studies education. 

However, the media attention also serves a call to action to attend to funding and opportunity gaps. Greater national attention toward policies such as technology, Common Core and/or STEM, have influenced educational budget decisions in which fewer professional learning resources and opportunities are available for social studies teachers as compared to English language arts (ELA), math, and science. iCivics issued a statement on the Nation’s Report Card 2018 Civics scores. Louise Dube, the Executive Director of iCivics, noted, “The results are sobering. …Though…not a surprise. This is an inevitable outcome of sidelining civic education for decades.” Her message continued, “The Nation’s Report Card was a warning, but it comes with an opportunity. This crisis is the greatest living lesson in civics of our lifetimes. Now is the time for us to redouble our commitment to expanding and improving civic education and to engage young people in rebuilding civic bonds across differences.” Inherent in the message was that “jarring” NAEP Civics scores demanded legislative action. The message included a passionate call for grassroots support to press Congress for $40 Million in emergency funding for civic education in the next Relief Act.

Looking more closely at the results, all is not bleak. First, the changes observed in scores are not statistically different from 2014 for overall scores and for scores of subgroups of students. What this means is that students over time performed roughly the same on NAEP civics, geography, and U.S. history exams. Thus, the interpretative value of NAEP results is likely not found in the overall scores, but rather in the subtle differences observable within the performance scores when examining student characteristics, school demographics, and reported instructional practices and teacher attributes. For example, NAEP civics findings indicate two promising outcomes: 1) the civic knowledge gap between White and Hispanic students is consistently decreasing since 1998; and 2) curriculum access to an 8th-grade course which primarily focuses on civics is associated with higher NAEP scores. Given that few states have a civics course requirement in middle school, NAEP results offer hope that policy emphases on civics requirements prior to high school would be beneficial in improving students' civic knowledge and skills. 

Second, results reported in the media emphasize percentages of students at or above proficiency, creating the perception that students below proficient are failing. This view overlooks the fact that the basic level indicates that students have demonstrated some mastery and have prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for performance at the NAEP proficient level. Proficiency and advanced levels are equivalent to high and outstanding achievement in rigorous disciplinary content. According to NAEP, students reaching proficient level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter. It is important to note that proficiency is not equivalent to grade-level scores or proficiency often used in states and districts to measure the academic performance of students, teachers, and schools. In light of this understanding, results can offer a more promising picture of students’ educational attainment. Trends indicate that 73% of students scored at or above basic level of proficiency in civics in 2018 as compared to 74% in 2014; yet, the percentage of students with prerequisite knowledge and skills remains above scores between 1998-2010. On average, students score 23 points higher than what would be considered basic understanding of civic life, politics, and government; foundations of the American political system; the purposes, values, and principles of American democracy; relationships of the US to other nations, and roles of citizens in American democracy. 

For U.S. history, 66% of students demonstrate basic knowledge and skills in 2018 as compared to 71% in 2014 and 69% in 2010. Albeit slightly lower than all prior years and equal to 1994, 2018 geography scores indicate that 71% of students have basic geographic knowledge and can apply geographic thinking skills assessed on NAEP. 83% of students have a moderate to high confidence in their geography knowledge and skills. Two-thirds of students report taking an 8th-grade class or course covering geography topics or mainly focused on geography. More recently, states, districts, and schools have made decisions to minimize/reduce social studies graduation requirements, the number of educators with expertise in social studies in K-8 schools, and cut funding for social studies resources. Looking at the association between course exposure and access might yield positive evidence to support the value of social studies courses for all students and back efforts to reverse course requirement trends

Despite the positive findings noted, we cannot ignore the fact that almost a quarter of students are not meeting basic prerequisite knowledge and skills expectations in civics, geography, and U.S. history. Exploring more intricately characteristics of these learners, the common attributes of schools they attend, and the reported training and practice of educators that serve these students might yield meaningful information regarding how to respond to opportunity and achievement gaps in social studies. As a case in point, there are observable gaps among the percentage of students within subgroups who meet basic levels. These results continue to offer evidence of an opportunity gap for students and suggest that not all students have the same access and exposure to social studies education. For example, racial comparisons of the percentage of students at or above basic proficiency levels in 8th-grade Civics indicate a need to examine NAEP data trends more subtly for differences. 

NAEP 2018 8th Grade Civics Scores

Racial Group

Percentage of students at or above basic proficiency levels in 8th-grade Civics







Asian/Pacific Islander


American Indian/Alaskan Native


Two or More Races



NAEP 2018 geography and U.S. history scores reveal racial and gender differences in achievement on NAEP. Compared to 2014, White and Black eighth-graders scored lower on the 2018 geography assessment and White, Black, and Hispanic students scored lower in U.S. history; there was no significant score change for White, Black, or Hispanic students in civics in 2018. Male and female eighth-graders showed score decreases in geography and U.S. history since 2014 but no significant score change in civics. As with the 2018 8th grade data, NAEP frequently exposes achievement and opportunity gaps across race/ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, school type, and region.

NAEP assessments include student, teacher, and school characteristics which are associated with student learning in civics, geography, and history. In addition, NAEP provides information regarding teachers’ instructional decision-making. More robust analyses such as multiple regression, item response theory, and multi-level modeling may yield differences within schools and between schools in learning opportunities for various subgroups of students that could be leveraged effectively to change the persistent educational inequalities (Fitchett, Heafner & Lambert, 2014; Heafner & Fitchett; 2015; Heafner, VanFossen, & Fitchett, 2019). 

From a policy stand-point, NAEP is viewed as the most comprehensive measure of what students know and can do at critical junctures in their K-12 school experience. NAEP assessments strongly influence educational policy and decision-making concerning curriculum and practice not only at the national level but also at the state level. Yet, few social studies educators and policy-makers recognize the limits to what NAEP assessments can measure. As a result, the meaning derived from testing results should be bounded. The NAEP exam is an assessment that sorts student scores along a normal distribution. It is intended to rank students’ scores and order them into percentiles. The NAEP exams measure specific content and skills, but NAEP is not a test of all content and skills students’ study in social studies, e.g. current events or civic action. Consequently, it is not news that proficiency levels remained flat and little measured change occurred between 2014 and 2018. This is more an indication of test design. The interpretation of these results becomes a matter of judgment and expectations, not statistics. Conflating scores below proficiency with failing grades exacerbates a perception of inadequate schools and educators that have been under attack for decades. (Mis)constructing meaning can confuse and detract from critical issues concerning the field of social studies education, such as racial, gender, and socio-economic equality and civic empowerment. “Given that marginalization inside U.S. schools is likely to continue unabated so long as marginalization outside of schools goes unchallenged” (Shuttleworth and Patterson, 2020, 136), this is a narrative worth debunking.  Beyond the media hype about reproachable test scores, NAEP civics, geography, and U.S. history 8th-grade scores can be meaningful policy influencers when interpretations are cautious and constrained by what the data can and do measure. So, before you “don sackcloth and ashes” over the next announcement of NAEP results, pause and consider what transformative social studies educators might do to accurately present the great work we are doing in social studies and to project a more positive image of the field. 


Complete information on the NAEP assessment program may be found at


Fitchett, P., Heafner, T. L., & Lambert, R. (2014). Social studies under siege: Examining policy and teacher-level factors associated with elementary social studies marginalization. Teachers College Record, 116, 1-34.

Heafner, T. L., & Fitchett, P. G. (2015). An opportunity to learn US history: What NAEP data suggest regarding the opportunity gap. The High School Journal, 98(3), 226-249.

Heafner, T. L., VanFossen, P., & Fitchett, P. G. (2019). Predictors of students’ achievement on NAEP-Economics: A multilevel model. Journal of Social Studies Research. Available

Shuttleworth, J. M., & Patterson, T. (2020). The discourse of (mis)construction and national history exams. Theory and Research in Social Education, 48(1), 120-145.