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Indicator I-4 Knowledge of Civics
NOTE TO READERS: Please include the following reference when citing data from this page: "American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicators,".
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Updated (8/12/2010).

See the
Note on the Difference between NAEP "Achievement" and "Performance" Levels.

The NAEP civics examination is designed to gauge students’ proficiency in three civics areas: knowledge, intellectual skills, and dispositions. In 2010, 77% of all fourth graders scored at or above the basic achievement level (Figure I-4a). As was true of the NAEP assessments in other humanities subjects, lower levels of competency were observed among older students, with only 64% of 12th graders demonstrating at least basic achievement in 2010. (For the percentages of students in different grades who demonstrated particular civics competencies, see Graphic I-4a).

Figure I-4a, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data
Graphic gI-4a, Full Size

Two possible explanations can be advanced for the lower levels of achievement in the higher grades. The first of these is a “cohort-based” explanation. This asserts that, in the case of students who took the 2010 NAEP civics examination, students born in the early 1990s are for some reason less receptive to civics instruction than their counterparts born in the early 2000s. The other type of explanation focuses on “age effects.” This explanation asserts that something about late adolescence—either the developmental process or high school education in the United States—is less conducive to civics learning. (See the memo from the NAEP governing board describing how the timing of the high school assessment may be resulting in an underestimation of 12th graders’ achievement in civics and other areas.)

The spacing of the NAEP civics assessments permits an investigation of these issues. Because a particular cohort of students can be followed over time (the sample of eighth graders who took the exam in 2006 was drawn from the same cohort as the sample of 12th graders who took the exam in 2010), researchers can “control” for cohort effects (i.e., reduce the possibility that observed differences between younger and older students’ performance is attributable to differences between grade cohorts).

As in the case of writing, the data provide some support for the second type of explanation; that is, student performance is linked to age. As students in the cohort progressed through their educational careers, the percentage demonstrating at least basic achievement decreased. However the picture was not one of unambiguous decline in civics achievement but of polarization, with students becoming increasingly concentrated at the two ends of the performance spectrum. In eighth grade, 30% of the cohort demonstrated less than basic achievement in civics. (The results of the 2006 exam are not depicted here, but they are available for downloading at Upon reaching 12th grade, as indicated in Figure I-4a, 36% failed to demonstrate at least basic competency. At the same time, the share of students scoring at the high end of the achievement scale (performing at the “proficient” or “advanced” levels) was somewhat larger in 12th grade than in eighth grade.

Figure I-4a also reveals that the nation has made progress over time with respect to fourth graders’ civics achievement. Between 1998 and 2010 the share of students at this grade level who demonstrated less than basic achievement decreased from 31% to 23%. Gains were seen not only in the share of students demonstrating at least basic achievement but also in the proportion displaying true proficiency in the subject. No statistically significant change over the same time period was found in the performance of eighth or 12th graders.

(The NAEP Data Explorer permits analysis of these assessment data by gender, ethnicity, and a number of other key variables. For both an overview of Explorer and tips for its effective use, see The Explorer itself is located at

The only source of data that permits international comparison of young people’s civics achievement is the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement’s (IEA) periodic assessment, first administered in 1971 and again in 1999 and 2009. Because the United States opted not to participate in the latest study, the most recent data available on how U.S. 14-year-olds perform relative to their counterparts elsewhere in the world are from the late 1990s. In 1999, the IEA assessment consisted of two components. The first focused on civics content knowledge (Graphic I-4b), or theoretical knowledge about democratic institutions and practices, such as the purpose of political parties (25 items). The second component examined students’ civics skills (Graphic I-4c); that is, interpretive abilities important in understanding political material, such as the ability to distinguish between facts and opinions or being able to critically read a political cartoon or pamphlet (13 items). The two scores were then averaged, with civics content knowledge scores weighted somewhat more heavily, to produce a total civics knowledge score for each nation.

Graphic gI-4b, Full Size
Graphic gI-4c, Full Size

On the civics skills portion of the exam, the United States outperformed all of the OECD nations, as well as the non-OECD nations, that participated in the 28-country study (Figure I-4b). The United States did not score as well on the civics content portion of the test, coming in behind several other OECD countries. In terms of its 14-year-olds’ total civics knowledge, the United States ranked fourth, though the difference between its average score and that of the three OECD leaders—Poland, Finland, and Greece—was not statistically significant.

Figure I-4b, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

Note on the Difference between NAEP "Achievement" and "Performance" Levels

Figures I-1a, I-1b, and I-1c display the percentages of students scoring at certain levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s (NAEP) long-term trend reading assessment. This NAEP examination is scored differently from the other NAEP tests, such as those in writing, history, and civics, and the “main” NAEP reading assessment (for an explanation of the differences between the two NAEP reading assessments, see

On the latter exams, students are assessed according to grade-specific achievement scales. A student’s level of achievement is judged to be “below basic,” “basic,” “proficient,” or “advanced” depending on his or her score on the appropriate scale. A score at the “basic” level indicates that a student has demonstrated partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade. A score of “proficient” indicates solid academic performance—students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter. An “advanced” score represents superior performance. A child scoring at the “advanced” achievement level on the 12th-grade exam in a given subject area is demonstrating different skills than a fourth grader scoring at the “advanced” level.

In contrast, the NAEP long-term trend reading assessment uses a single scale, referred to as a performance scale, for 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds. What constitutes “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced” performance depends on the age of the examinee. Both a 9-year-old and a 17-year-old may score at Level 250 (able to interrelate ideas and make generalizations). Such a score would constitute an advanced level of performance on the part of the 9-year-old and a basic level of performance on the part of the 17-year-old.

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