The latest Nation's Report Card shows eighth-graders' scores in U.S. history and geography declining since 2014, results Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Thursday called "stark and inexcusable."
Civics scores on the 2018 assessments were the same as in the last round of tests four years earlier, the newly released results show.
The assessments, given for the first time digitally on tablets instead of paper, were administered to 42,700 eighth-grade students in 780 public and private schools across the nation.
Also troubling, administrators said, was that lower-performing students lost more ground than middle- and higher-performing students, mirroring a pattern seen in recent reading and math scores. The problem is likely to be made worse by the loss of class time caused by the coronavirus, which is expected to have a greater impact on lower-performing students.
The pattern "should motivate us all to address the factors behind these declines for struggling students," said Lesley Muldoon, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board.
Across all three subjects, a quarter or less of students scored at or above proficient, meaning they showed a solid understanding of challenging concepts. Another quarter or more failed to demonstrate a level of basic understanding, the results showed.
"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," DeVos said in a written statement. "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."
The score gaps between white students and their black and Hispanic peers did not significantly change from 2014 to 2018.
"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 Peggy Carr, associate commissioner at the National Center for Education Statistics, which runs the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation's Report Card.
"The results provided here," Carr said, "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."
The average U.S. history score was 263 out of 500 in 2018, four points lower than in 2014. The results categorized 15% of eighth-graders as proficient when asked, for example, to explain the significance of certain documents and ideas in American history. History scores declined across the board for white, black and Hispanic students, the results showed.
The average geography score was 258 on a 500-point scale, three points lower than in 2014, with scores for white and black students showing declines. In 2018, 25% of students scored at or above the proficient level.
The 2018 civics score measuring students' knowledge of government was unchanged between 2014 and 2018. About 24% of students scored at or above proficient, and there was no significant change across ethnic groups.
There has been improvement over time since the assessments were first administered in the 1990s. Civics and history scores have gone up overall and the score gap between white and Hispanic students in civics has narrowed by 10 points. Score differences also have narrowed between white students and black and Hispanic students in geography, but the gaps in history scores have remained about the same.