The Nation’s Report Card: Our job is clear

Recently, the National Assessment of Educational Progress – known as NAEP, or “The Nation’s Report Card” – released some disquieting data. For the first time, the average civics test scores among eighth-graders declined. NAEP tested about 7,800 students across the nation in civics in 2022; the exam, first administered in 1998, was last given in 2018.

Relatively speaking, that’s the good news. The assessment saw much sharper drops in students’ understanding of U.S. history. Only 14 percent of the 8,000 students tested in the subject scored at or above proficiency.

Obviously, this is a concern. For a not-insignificant number of young people, it’s a struggle to understand how our institutions work and, moreover, why civic engagement is important. When basically a third of eighth-graders can’t describe how our government is built or how it functions, we as a society have our work cut out for us (Yes, even here in Nebraska, where our schools are so prized: Regionally, the biggest decline in civics scores was right here in the Midwest).

Our national leaders are not oblivious to the “civic slide.” In March, President Biden proposed a $73 million allocation for civics and U.S. history as part of the administration’s 2024 fiscal budget. That would represent a $50 million increase for the subjects over 2023’s funding. No matter where you land on the political spectrum, appropriately funding civics and history education is key to our collective future.

But that’s only one part of the solution. We know that classroom learning is effectively fortified with outside-of-school enrichment and extracurricular activities. It’s why Civic Nebraska’s Youth Civic Leadership initiative is in after-school programs and clubs around the state. It’s why we connect educators and students with standards-based service learning. It’s why we host hundreds of middle- and high-schoolers at the State Capitol yearly at Capitol Experience Days – daylong deep dives into our state government. And it’s why we support school districts and educators with free curated resources on the building blocks of engaged and informed citizenship.

We’re grateful, too, for the great work that groups like iCivics and the CivXNow Coalition are doing for the benefit of Americans of all ages. If you aren’t familiar with these and other civic organizations, give them a look – they’re doing the hard yards to arrest the slide, build confidence in our institutions, and stir a sense of shared purpose among citizens.

We can’t outsource the task of turning things around – it’s going to take all of us, and we have no time to waste. So many issues today require systems literacy and historical context. This is true for lawmakers and voters, to be sure, but it’s most true for our youngest Americans. That’s what it all comes down to, and it’s at times like this when the words of Ronald Reagan ring loudly. Our 40th president famously said:

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

Civics – and its close cousin, history – is the bedrock of democracy. From that mighty foundation, we have built a resilient democratic system sustained by a powerful ideal. It’s weathered a lot, and now is not the time to stand by and watch it crumble.