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National student assessment has educators and legislators worried

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Today, the United States has a new report card - a look at how students around the country are doing in civics and history education - and the data shows cause for concern. NPR's Sequoia Carrillo brings us more.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: How bad is it? Well, the latest U.S. history scores from eighth graders are the lowest recorded since the assessment began back in 1994. And this year marked the first-ever drop in civics. These numbers are from the National Assessment for Educational Progress, or NAEP. And the scores out today are the first in these subjects since the COVID-19 pandemic. Some educators around the country, like Kerry Sautner at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, have been waiting eagerly for the results.

KERRY SAUTNER: I always think about it like a political poll. Like, it tells you a snapshot in time.

CARRILLO: And this year, the snapshot has educators and legislators worried. For history, the exam has students answer questions about different categories like democracy, culture, technology and world role of the United States. But this year, there were declines in all those subjects. Sautner was preparing for bad news after the NAEP reading and math scores came out in October. Reading scores dipped and math scores saw a significant drop. And history and civics, of course, build off reading comprehension.

SAUTNER: When we saw the reading scores drop, it kind of felt like, well, that's a little prelude to what you're going to see in civics and history.

CARRILLO: U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement that a lot of these drops are due to the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIGUEL CARDONA: The latest data further affirms the profound impact the pandemic had on student learning and subjects beyond math and reading.

CARRILLO: But for history at least, the data was trending down long before 2020. So the big question, of course, is what's behind these drops?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PEGGY CARR: Well, you know, we can't tell you why. Never can tell you why.

CARRILLO: That's Dr. Peggy Carr, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, who helps administer NAEP, in a presentation of the results earlier today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARR: Almost 30 years, and we haven't made a lot of progress - actually, we made progress and then lost - since the '90s. So that's a little sobering.

CARRILLO: She's right. From 1994 to 2014, the results were trending up in history. But since then, there's been a drop of almost nine points.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARR: I think we can all agree that COVID had an impact in both sets of assessments - reading and math, U.S. history and civics. But what was going on in U.S. history, in particular, started long before COVID.

CARRILLO: This new data comes in a political climate that has taken a critical eye to the things taught in public schools. Both sides of the political spectrum have been reexamining American history and how it's taught. Now, faced with drops across multiple subjects, Secretary Cardona hopes the country can come together to fill the gaps.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARDONA: We need to provide every student with rich opportunities to learn about America's history and understand the U.S. Constitution and how our system of government works.

CARRILLO: After all, today's students will one day be running that government.

Sequoia Carrillo, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF 9TH WONDER'S "SEASON COURAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.