The decline in social studies performance may reflect a dwindling emphasis on those classes. There has been a much greater focus on math and reading skills, the two areas for which schools are held accountable in state testing.
Critics have been contending for a decade that too little time and money go to social studies, pointing out that what gets tested gets the attention and resources.
In 2016, Georgia lawmakers reduced the number of mandatory standardized tests from 32 to 24, eliminating the science and social studies exams from third, fourth, sixth and seventh grades.
A recommendation this year from Georgia’s governor and school superintendent would also eliminate the state’s fifth-grade Milestones exam in social studies. A bill to do so was headed for approval in the Legislature before the session was suspended due to the coronavirus.
Writing in this space earlier this year, Randell Trammell, CEO of the State YMCA of Georgia and founder of the Georgia Center for Civic Engagement, expressed concern over this trend:
Fifth-grade teachers at a recent workshop bemoaned the fact that students had very little knowledge or understanding of government from their prior K through 4th grade classes.
Unfortunately, when it is no longer a tested priority, school districts will stop funding professional development in those subject areas—and it becomes even less of a priority.
“These results from the Nation’s Report Card are sobering. They remind us that the worst scores for American high school students often are not in science and math, but in United States history. And, if our children do not learn United States history, they will not grow up learning what it means to be an American,” said U.S. Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
Peggy G. Carr, the associate commissioner of assessment at National Center for Education Statistics, which runs NAEP, said, “These assessments challenge students to show their knowledge and skills as they prepare to become full participants in American democracy.”
“Our nation is experiencing a teachable moment with the current health crisis in terms of how important it is to understand historical forces, the role of our civic institutions, and the impact of geographical conditions of our interconnected world,” said Carr in a statement. “The results provided here indicate that 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.”
In U.S. history, scores since 2014 fell across all performance levels except for kids at the top. Lower-performing students declined in geography, while middle- and higher-performing students did not. These results duplicate the decline in eighth-grade NAEP reading and math among lower-performing students over the most recent four years.
“America’s antiquated approach to education is creating a generation of future leaders who will not have a foundational understanding of what makes this country exceptional. We cannot continue to excuse this problem away. Instead, we need to fundamentally rethink education in America. It is the only way our nation’s students will be in a position to lead our nation and the world,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in a statement today.
“The results are stark and inexcusable. A quarter or more of America’s 8th graders are what NAEP defines as ‘below basic’ in U.S. history, civics and geography,” said DeVos. “In the real world, this means students don’t know what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about, nor can they discuss the significance of the Bill of Rights, or point out basic locations on a map. And only 15% of them have a reasonable knowledge of U.S. history. All Americans should take a moment to think about the concerning implications for the future of our country.”