Only 27 percent of fourth-graders, 22 percent of eighth-graders, and 24 percent of twelfth-graders scored proficient or higher in civics.

Roughly three-quarters of U.S. students failed to reach proficiency in a national exam testing their awareness of civics last year—a result that severely undermines the nation’s democracy, some observers warn.

The National Assessment Governing Board released the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) “Civics Report Card” at a press conference May 4 at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

The “Nation’s Report Card,” as the NAEP exam often is called, is the only nationally representative, continuing evaluation of the condition of education in the United States and has served as a national yardstick of student achievement since 1969. The data released May 4 provide a snapshot of what students nationwide know—and don’t know—about civics.

The data revealed that only 27 percent of fourth-graders, 22 percent of eighth-graders, and 24 percent of twelfth-graders scored proficient or higher in civics—meaning that millions of young Americans “will be unprepared to be the informed and engaged citizens a healthy democracy requires,” the governing board said.

Scores were even lower for low-income and minority students, with black students scoring, on average, 24 to 30 points lower than their white counterparts.

Students made modest gains in civics in grade 4, but scores for 8th graders were flat, and for high school seniors—those who are about to vote for the first time—achievement has fallen.

On the whole, the data were nearly identical to those of the 1998 and 2006 Civics NAEP exams, demonstrating a lack of progress in civics education for more than a decade.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who last year unveiled free computer games that help teach students about civics, said the results demand the nation’s attention—and a concerted effort to reverse the decline in national civic awareness.

“The scores from the Nation’s Report Card on Civics and Government are truly disappointing,” she said. “The scores reveal a very disturbing lack of basic knowledge of our system of government and how and why citizens must be engaged. The report is a clarion call for action to restore the civic mission of our nation’s schools. We can and must do better in providing civic education to all of our nation’s school students.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, suggested the results might have to do with the fact that civics education wasn’t emphasized in the No Child Left Behind Act, which holds schools accountable for student achievement in reading and math.

“An informed, active citizenry and an educated workforce are essential pillars of a healthy democracy,” Weingarten said. “It is a disservice to students to narrow our focus to only what is tested—reading and mathematics—and to give scant attention to civics. We are encouraged by the fourth-grade gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But overall, the progress is not nearly far enough or fast enough.”

Skills tested on the NAEP civics exam included recognizing a role performed by the U.S. Supreme Court, identifying a right protected by the First Amendment, naming two actions that citizens can take to encourage Congress to pass a law, and analyzing the message in a political cartoon.

The full data from the 2010 Civics NAEP are available at