I served on the governing board of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for seven years. I was appointed by President Clinton. I learned quite a lot about standardized testing during that time. I enjoyed reading test questions and finding a few that had two right answers. Two subjects where I felt confident as a reviewer, in addition to reading, were history and civics.

I was momentarily dismayed, but not surprised, to learn that the NAEP scores in history and civics had declined, as they had in reading and math, after the disruptions and closings caused by the pandemic. This is not surprising, because fewer days of instruction translates into less learning.

So we know for sure that instructional time matters. You can’t learn what you weren’t taught.

But on second thought, I realized that in these days it is almost impossible to test history and civics and get a meaningful result.

Many states, all Republican-dominated, have censored history teaching. The legislatures don’t want students to learn “divisive concepts.” They don’t want anything taught that will make students “uncomfortable.” They don’t want “critical race theory” to be taught. These ideas have been spun out at length with other vague descriptions of what teachers are NOT allowed to teach.

The people who write test questions for NAEP history are not bound by these restrictions. They are most likely writing questions about “divisive concepts” and “uncomfortable” topics. They might even ask questions that legislators might think are tinged or saturated by critical race theory.

Given the number of states that ban the teaching of accurate, factual history, it’s seems to me impossible to expect students to be prepared to take an American history test.

Even more complicated is civics. A good civics exam might ask questions about the importance of the right to vote. It might ask questions written on the assumption that vote suppression and gerrymandering are undemocratic practices that were long ago banned by the courts. Yet courts are now allowing these baleful practices to stand. How can a student understand that a discredited practice is now openly endorsed in various state laws and have not been discredited by the courts?

Civics classes typically teach that one of the great strengths of American democracy is the peaceful transition of power from one President to another. How can they teach that idea when Trump partisans insist that he won the last election and was ousted in a coup? How can teachers explain the election process when Trump says it’s rigged (he said it before the 2016 election as well)? How can students answer questions about elections and the Electoral College when Trumpers believe they were corrupted in 2020?

How can teachers teach civics when almost every GOP leader asserts that the election was stolen?

How can civics be taught when public officials defy public opinion to allow any individual to buy guns without a background check or a permit. Having bought a gun, they may wear it openly in some states and carry it concealed in some other states. Students have been practicing in case an armed killer walks into their school during the day. They need only google to learn that a majority of the public favors gun control of varying kinds. Why, they might ask their teacher, doesn’t the legislature and Congress act to protect the lives of children?

Is it worse to teach lies or to teach the truth?