(Opinion) Data, data everywhere, not a civic habit to be developed

Standardized testing fails in student proficiency

Data. A word synonymous with informed and sound decision-making. Seemingly every reputable organization leans on carefully curated datasets to inform their minor and major decisions. Whether it is a venture capitalist assessing market risks, a tech company launching a new app, or a marketing firm identifying a target demographic, data is the new modality by which intellectual certainty is argued and asserted.

This reliance on data-based decisions holds true in the public education system. Since the onset of No Child Left Behind in the early 2000s, public schools have been mandated to slog through a torrent of standardized tests to determine if students are at, above or below proficiency standards. In New Hampshire, standardized tests such as the Statewide Assessment System, the Northwest Evaluation Assessment and the Northeast Common Assessment Program produce math, science and English language arts data points for administrators and teachers to laud or sweat over when it comes time to see if oversight is needed from the state or federal levels.

Frequently left out of these standardized tests are the subjects of civics and history. As a result of this exclusion, school districts have lowered the priority of these subjects by devoting less instructional time to them and less consideration for student proficiency within them. This sidelining has been the status quo for the past 20 years in public education, and we are now starting to see the academic and political consequences of it.

Drop in civics achievement

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) recently released a longitudinal report detailing the results of its civics and history assessments over the past 25 years. In this report, NAEP indicates that for the first time since 1998, eighth-grade student proficiency scores in civics are down while history scores continue to plummet.

NAEP determines student proficiency on a standardized scale of 0-300 points. In 2022, the average student score on this scale was 150, down two points from 2018. A two-point drop might not seem like cause for concern, but the fact that the average eighth-grade student is at a 50 percent proficiency rating when it comes to understanding the American government is startling.

Social studies teachers will see this data and say that they are the direct result of 20 years of deliberately insufficient curriculum and instruction time in an attempt to boost the standardized scores of math, science and English language arts. To a certain degree, these teachers are correct, and this is a logically consistent argument that they have been advancing for quite some time.

Given that data-driven initiatives currently hold broad societal appeal as a means to bring about sound and informed change, NAEP’s data may prompt districts to devote more time to the tested curriculum within its civics assessment. The probability of this happening in New Hampshire school districts is quite high, since civics instruction is a newly mandated part of every grade’s curriculum.

However, NAEP’s data may be acting more as a red herring, distracting us from identifying the most significant areas in need of improvement when redesigning curriculum to teach the skills needed for citizens of the 21st century.

Civic habits over data points

NAEP’s data falls victim to the same logical missteps that New Hampshire’s recently developed standardized civics assessments do when measuring student proficiency. These assessments do not authentically measure the skills and habits needed to positively impact political discourse or the function of government. They merely measure student ability to memorize and regurgitate a series of enumerated facts. There is substantial research proving that, when completing this type of assessment, students rarely find meaning in a given subject matter and ultimately lack the ability to abstractly apply content specifics to other topics.

Furthermore, the appearance of AI in the classroom renders the technique of rote memorization moot. Students can now access enumerated facts and data faster and more accurately than any moment in history. Such technologically assisted recall will never be out of reach for students, and will only become more efficient and pervasive as AI evolves into a paradigm shifting technology for every conceivable human endeavor.

Up against the onset of AI and the impoverished rhetoric currently gripping American politics, students need to be presented with the opportunity to develop skills that will allow them to establish lifelong civic habits. Habits such as media literacy, digital citizenship, argument analysis, social empathy, Socratic humility, and knowing how to identify and operate peaceful constitutional levers to achieve meaningful political reform.

These civic habits are not a radical departure from the founding ideas of America. When drafting the Constitution, James Madison was keenly aware that democratic institutions needed checks and balances to prevent tyrannical drift. The existence and longevity of such a government not only depended upon institutional restraints but upon the habits and virtue of its citizens as the ultimate check on the vices of all governments.

If New Hampshire forgoes a habits-based civics curriculum for data-driven assessments, it will fail to meet the political imperative established by Madison. More significantly, it will fail the next generation of citizens by not preparing them to grab hold of the reins of democracy with the skills necessary to guide it into perpetuity for themselves and their posterity.

Tyler Pare, a New Hampshire native and ardent supporter of civic education, teaches history for the Hollis Brookline Cooperative School District in Hollis. This article was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NH Business Review and other outlets to republish its reporting.

Categories: Opinion