Only 13% of 8th Graders Are Proficient in American History – We’re Seeing the Results

13% civics history
The White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I went to what was considered one of the best public schools in Minnesota. However, I rarely had teachers show up to class, and the ones that did often phoned in their jobs by doing what I used to call “teaching from the VCR” (for my younger readers, that was a machine hooked up to a television that would play movies if you inserted what was called a tape into it).

I did have one particular teacher during my freshman year who made a formidable positive impression on my mind – Mr. Perkins, my Social Studies teacher. His great student-led debates on famous Supreme Court cases and current events sparked my love of U.S. history and government. 

In that classroom, I learned to appreciate history, how our imperfectly perfect government operates with the rest of the world, and how important it is to preserve this grand experiment. 

You’re going to have a hard time finding students in a similar situation today, because our schools are failing students so badly I can hardly even believe these numbers.

Epic Failure

The National Report Card dropped some more disappointing news this week about the education of our nation’s youth. Not only are our kids considerably worse than prior generations in math and reading, they are also woefully behind in their comprehension of history and civics.

But these numbers are just something else.

Only 13% of 8th graders scored proficiently in history, and only 22% in civics. For those of you who need a refresher, civics is the study of how our government works – a fairly essential concept to understand if you want to be a functioning member of society.

These numbers mean that over 80% of 8th graders don’t understand the historical context of the Gettysburg Address and can’t name one way that Congress fulfills its constitutional duties. (Although to be fair, Congress’ fulfillment of its constitutional responsibilities is debatable.)

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Over three-quarters of these students don’t know the essential functions of the government they will be participating in as taxpayers, voters, and various other aspects of society. Not surprisingly, public school students did worse than those who are in private and charter schools.

You’d think Big Education would be interested in collaborating to find out what those schools are doing right and what they are doing wrong, but that would require them to care about students versus their self-interests.

But the truth is, these scores have been dismal for decades. Ask 10 people on the street who the first President was, and you’d probably get at least five blank stares.

Now look around at your country. You’re seeing the results of Big Education.

It’s Obviously Not Their Fault

Like anything that makes this administration or our country look bad, the usual boogeymen were invoked as the culprits of this decline in education.

COVID got a nod from several within the administration; after all, if it hadn’t been for those school closures that nobody advocated for (looking at you, Fauci, and Randi), then our students wouldn’t be doing so poorly.

But my favorite line came from Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, who claims the results indicate the following:

“It tells us that now is not the time for politicians to try to extract double-digit cuts to education funding, nor is it the time to limit what students learn in U.S. history and civics classes.”

With the Department of Education one of the most well-funded in the federal government to the tune of $174 billion, it’s hard to buy that part of the problem with our decline in education scores is financially related.

Secretary Cardona went on to state:

“Banning history books and censoring educators from teaching these important subjects does our students a disservice and will move America in the wrong direction.”

Because teaching kids to hate America, that we were founded on white supremacy and privilege, and that democracy and capitalism are not ideal compared to authoritarianism and socialism is the right direction. Give me a break.

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A Long Time Coming

The truth is nobody should be surprised by these numbers. A decade ago, only 18% of 8th graders were proficient in history.

Ten years ago, we did nothing to fix this problem. This was painfully evident to me while I was in the service when Airmen from that age group didn’t know the difference between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden or that we were even at war with anyone at the time. 

Commissioner of the National Center for Education Peggy Carr rightly explains that this issue is even more concerning:

“because it’s a decline that started in 2014 long before we even thought about Covid.”

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Some argue that since history and civics courses require a lot of reading, the decline in reading proficiency is to blame; less than one-third of 8th graders are proficient in reading.

This is a fair argument given that reading is a prerequisite for every other course – but misses the larger picture of what history and civics teach.

Ms. Carr explains:

“It’s not just about reading, it’s about context, facts, dates, information about our constitutional system.”

In other words, it’s about taking the whole picture and utilizing critical thought to form coherent arguments and positions on issues pertinent to today. But, if you listen to any of our elected officials, one could argue that skill has been deficient for decades.

Melting Of Minds

It fits that 40 years ago to the month, a report was published titled ‘A Nation at Risk’ that warned of the following:

“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people.”

At this point, mediocrity would be a step up for our nation’s youth. Americans need to understand that those of us who have stood by for decades saying nothing about the state of our education system and those who have willfully sought to change the nature of our country by manipulating the minds of our youth have been complicit in educational child abuse.

Kerry Sautner, who works with the nonprofit National Constitution Center, said:

“Students are beginning to disengage from – and become more fearful of expressing their opinions on – history, government and other topics important to civic learning.”

It’s not enough that we’ve allowed bad actors to censor our speech and thoughts when we disagree with the progressive left; we’ve now subjected our children to it.

For those who wish to argue that the reason history and civics scores are so low is because of racist white Republicans, let me drop this fact from the National Report Card: only 6% of 8th graders could articulate how two ideas from the Constitution were reflected in Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

Dangerous Results

Reading and math are critical, and we must focus on these subjects to compete in the world market. But understanding history and civics is equally crucial to the survival of a nation.

Thomas Jefferson once lamented:

“How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on Earth enjoy!”

No doubt true in his day, but even more true today. Suppose you are taught only to hate your nation’s founding and everything it stands for. In that case, you have no reason to sign up to fight for it, no reason to participate in it at the voting booth, and no reason to try to make it better by serving in it. 

Another lesser-known Founding Father, Benjamin Rush, said:

“Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge. Without learning, men are incapable of knowing their rights, and where learning is confined to a few people, liberty can be neither equal nor universal.”

We may be the freest nation on Earth, but that will only last so long as we have a properly educated country. 

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USAF Retired, Bronze Star recipient, outspoken veteran advocate. Hot mess mom to two monsters and wife to equal parts... More about Kathleen J. Anderson

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