“In a moment when our society is discussing what government should and can do amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we clearly see the value of a strong civics education,” said Patrick Kelly, a U.S. government and politics teacher from South Carolina. Recently, the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) released the assessment results of eighth-grade students in civics, history and geography. The results show an achievement gap remains between disadvantaged students and their peers from non-disadvantaged backgrounds; the results demonstrate that more work needs to be done to better help students learn in this important academic area.

As an essential component of a well-rounded education, civics plays a critical role in helping students to effectively participate in our society. Yet, for years, U.S. students, particularly disadvantaged students, have not shown improvement in their performance. The executive director of the NAGB remarked, “This pattern echoes the mathematics and reading results for 2019 and should motivate us all to address the factors behind these declines for struggling students.”

Gauging students’ civic knowledge and skills

The national assessment in civics is designed to show how well American students are being prepared for citizenship in our constitutional democracy, according to the Civics Framework for the 2018 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The framework also points out that to do well in the civics assessment, students need broad knowledge of the American constitutional system and of the workings of our civil society. The assessment requires students to demonstrate a range of intellectual skills, such as:

  • Identifying and describing important information.
  • Explaining and analyzing it.
  • Evaluating information and defending positions with appropriate evidence and reasoning.

Different from other standardized tests, the NAEP civics assessment is intended to gauge students’ civic knowledge and skills in terms of a set of achievement levels. For instance:

  • Basic level denotes partial mastery of the knowledge and skills, but performance that is fundamental for proficient work in grades 4, 8, and 12.
  • Proficient level represents solid academic performance and competency in challenging subject matter.

No technology support at home is another disadvantage for low-performing students

Thanks to the rich data collected by NAEP, the Center for Public Education (CPE) of the National School Boards Association (NSBA) is investigating some factors regarding student learning at home. Our first inquiry focuses on Title I school students (i.e. students who attend public schools receiving Title I funds for students) and their Internet accessibility at home.

As we know, 50.8 million or 90% of U.S. students attend public schools. Many schools receive federal funds to support economically disadvantaged students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, “Title I, Part A (Title I) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESEA) provides financial assistance to local educational agencies for children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards.”

Our first finding is that among students who attend Title I schools, no Internet access at home adds another major disadvantage to low-performing students (Figure 1).

  • Among the students who reported not having Internet access at home, more than half (58%) failed to reach the NAEP basic level, compared with only 29% of the students who reported having Internet access at home.
  • Among the students who reported never using Internet for homework at home, nearly half (49%) performed below the basic level. By contrast, among the students who reported using Internet at home to do homework almost every day, only one in four performed below the basic level.
  • Among students who had no Internet access at home, only 1% performed at or above the NAEP proficient level.

Figure 1. Population – Students from Schools Receiving Title I Funds for Students, Average Scale Score and Percentage of Students who Performed below Basic and at or above Proficient, by Internet access/use at Home: NAEP 8th Grade Civics, 2018

a graph showing average scale score and percentage of students who performed below basic and at or above proficient by internet use at home

Source: https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/ndecore/xplore/NDE

The “homework gap”

While many factors contribute to the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their peers from non-disadvantaged families, research consistently shows that students who use computers at home and/or have adequate Internet access at home have higher average achievement scores in reading, math, and science, compared with those who do not. Homework gap is a term often used to refer to the digital divide in education and the barriers that students face when learning at home without appropriate technology support.

Our second inquiry is whether the homework gap exists among students who demonstrate resiliency skills, such as academic confidence, academic self-discipline, and persistence in learning. Evidence shows that these skills enable students to overcome academic setbacks, stress and disadvantaged conditions. Research suggests that resilience can significantly affect school and life outcomes for students, including academic achievement.

We specifically analyzed the data of students who were eligible for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 3.4 million Black students and nearly 6 million Hispanic students attend schools where more than 75% of the school students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Percentwise, about 74% of Black students, 73% of Hispanic students, and 67% of American Indian/ Alaska native students go to schools with more than 50% NSLP students.

Our second finding is that even after controlling for students’ resiliency skills, the homework gap is still there. The data (Figure 2) show that in the population eligible for NSLP:

  • Among students who demonstrated high academic self-discipline but reported having no Internet access at home, only 7% performed at or above the proficient level, much lower than the percentage of their peers with Internet access at home (14%).
  • Among students who demonstrated high persistence in learning but reported never using Internet for homework at home, only 7% performed at or above the proficient level, as opposed to 14% of their peers who reported using Internet for homework every day.
  • Among students who demonstrated moderate confidence in their knowledge and skills in civics but reported never using Internet for homework at home, only 9% performed at or above proficient. 

Figure 2. Population – NSLP Students, Percentage of Students who Performed at or above the Proficient Level, by Student Characteristics and Learning Environment at Home: NAEP 8th Grade Civics, 2018

a graph showing students who performed at or above proficient level by student characteristics and learning environment at home

Source: https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/ndecore/xplore/NDE

In summary, the newly released NAEP data provide more evidence for school leaders to emphasize the importance of technology-enhanced learning at home. According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 18% of students living in remote rural areas have either no Internet access or just a dial-up connection, as opposed to 7% of students living in large suburban areas who lack access. For Black students living in remote rural areas, 41% either lack access or a connection better than dial-up. Although many factors contribute to achievement gaps, in many cases the gap starts from the fact that students may have access to high-speed broadband in the classroom, but not at home.

Simply put, technology-equipped learning environments at home matters, and bridging the homework gap is important to support students from disadvantaged families.

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