top of page
  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

40% of 8th-graders are 'below basic' in history

Eighth-graders don't know much about U.S. history and civics, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which just reported 2022 scores. History scores fell by five points since 2018, civics by two points, reports Kevin Mahnken on The 74.

Twenty-one percent of 8th-graders chose B, 21% marked D and 11% opted for C.

Forty percent of 8th-graders score "below basic" in U.S. history. Only 13 percent scored at or above NAEP’s “proficient” benchmark.

The slide started in 2014, when 29 percent were "below basic," said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. She is "very, very concerned."

Civics is "alarming," Carr said, with 31 percent "below basic" and only 20 percent testing as "proficient."

High achievers are doing as well as ever, while lower-performing students are doing significantly worse, repeating the trend in reading and math.

In addition to pandemic disruptions, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona blamed some states for “banning history books and censoring educators,” saying it is “not the time . . . to limit what students learn in U.S. history and civics classes.”

But problems go way back to before the pandemic and long before the latest round of the "culture war," writes Mahnken.

The downward-trending performance “reflects 30 years of disinvestment in the teaching of social studies,” said historian Edward Ayers, who recently launched an online hub called New American History to provide free learning resources to K–12 teachers. Schools "have emphasized STEM and reading," while cutting time for history and civics, he said.

A RAND survey warned of “missing infrastructure” for the teaching of civics and history in elementary schools, writes Mahnken. "Few states require regular assessment of social studies knowledge, the study found, and many rely on low-quality standards."

Furthermore, most teachers said they select their own social studies materials: just 16 percent use a textbook.

Students spend less time on social studies and much less time building knowledge, Kristin Dutcher Mann, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, told New York Times reporter Sarah Mervosh. The focus has shifted to developing skills, such as distinguishing between primary and secondary source documents, said Dutcher Mann. In her college classes for future social studies teachers, she "has noticed a 'rapid and very significant decline' in what students know about history and geography — like the fact that Africa is a continent, not a country."

Educators have devalued knowledge, which is "key to comprehension, critical thinking and literacy, writes Andrew J. Rotherham, who's worked on Virginia’s new History and Social Science standards. Many believe deeply that "content is secondary to 'skills' or that it is superfluous,” he writes. "You hear people say, you don’t need to know 'mere' facts when you can Google them."

However, "these ideas lead to vague standards that are not useful for teachers, open the door for ideology of all kinds in the classroom, can lead to weak curriculum, and fail to give students essential knowledge."

Are you better informed than an 8th-grader? Quick yourself on five "medium-difficulty" questions.

192 views3 comments


Steve Sherman
Steve Sherman
May 04, 2023

You'd thing blaming white people wouldn't be that hard to remember


May 04, 2023

Speaking as an 8th grade teacher, we don't cover Prohibition in 8th Grade. That is more in 11th Grade History. Regarding Henry Hudson, we focus more on Magellan, Columbus, Cortez and DeSoto than Hudson. He is mentioned but very briefly.

May 04, 2023
Replying to

Yes, I think most States now do "5th grade is up to the Constitution", 8th is up to the end of reconstruction, 11th is up to present day. They basically have 3 non-overlapping courses.

bottom of page