updated 5/16/2007 7:48:24 PM ET 2007-05-16T23:48:24

More students are learning the basics when it comes to history and civics, but they aren’t rising to the next level, national tests show.

The history and civics tests were given to students nationwide in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades last year, and the results were released Wednesday.

History scores increased in all three grades over 2001, the last time that subject was tested. Only fourth-graders showed progress since the last civics test, given in 1998. None of the grades saw an increase in students moving beyond a basic competency for either subject.

The gains could counter arguments by critics who say the 2002 No Child Left Behind law has placed too much emphasis on reading and math by requiring those subjects to be tested and led to less time spent on history, civics and other courses.

The Washington-based Center on Education Policy reported last year that a third of elementary school districts reported cutting back on time for social studies, which includes history and civics. However, a recent government study showed increases in social studies credits being earned by high schoolers.

Some officials say the extra attention on reading may explain the gains on history and civics tests.

“If kids are learning how to read better, then they can take these assessments. They have a very large reading component to them,” said Mark Schneider, commissioner of education statistics at the Education Department.

Progress at the bottom
The progress in history and civics was made by students working at the lowest levels, meaning there have been significantly more students working at or above the basic level than in the past. But there has been no increase in students working at or above the “proficient” level since the last time the tests were given.

Public officials say proficiency is the goal.

Some critics of No Child Left Behind say the law has focused educators’ attention on students at the lower end of the spectrum at the expense of students working at higher levels.

“That’s a concern, obviously,” said Darvin Winick, chair of the independent National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the tests. “We’re delighted to bring up the lower-performing kids ... but we haven’t brought up the higher-performing kids.”

The history results show:

  • Seventy percent of fourth-graders performed at the basic level or better, meaning some of them scored at proficient or advanced levels. That is up from about 66 percent in 2001. Fourth-graders who can work at the basic level should understand the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, for example.
  • Among eighth-graders, 65 percent performed at the basic level or better, up from 62 percent in 2001. Eighth-graders working at that level can typically identify slave states on a map.
  • While there’s been an increase in 12th-grade history scores — a rare occurrence on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests — the results are still not seen as great news. Just 47 percent know at least basic-level history, up from 43 percent in 2001. Seniors working at the basic level should be able to explain the historical context of Supreme Court decisions.
  • There was no change in the percentage of students performing at or above the “proficient” level, at any grade level. About 20 percent reached that mark in the fourth and eighth grades, as did 14 percent of high school seniors.

Only fourth-graders improved in civics
In civics, only fourth-grade students showed progress since 1998. As in history, the gains were made only by lower-performing students.

The civics results show:

  • Seventy-three percent of fourth-graders performed at the basic level or higher — up from 69 percent in 1998. Fourth-graders working at the basic level know that only citizens can vote in the United States.
  • Seventy percent of eighth-graders could do basic work or better in civics — the same percentage as in 1998. Eighth-graders demonstrating basic knowledge should be able to identify the term limit for the president.
  • Sixty-six percent of 12th-graders scored at the basic level or higher, also the same as the 1998 results. A student whose performance falls in that category should be able to identify a leadership position in Congress.
  • About a quarter of fourth- and eighth-graders rated “proficient” or better, and almost a third of seniors did.

The No Child Left Behind law has placed an emphasis on trying to close gaps in test scores between white and minority students.

These test results showed a narrowing of the score differences between white and Hispanic students in fourth-grade civics.

Similarly, in history the achievement gaps between white and Hispanic fourth-graders and white and black fourth-graders narrowed.

As in civics, the achievement gap remained static in the upper grades.

A nationally representative sample of more than 50,000 students took the tests.

More students would be tested under legislation introduced Wednesday by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the education committee, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former education secretary. They want state-by-state results for history and civics, much like is done with reading and math.

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