Civic Education Found Lacking in Most States

By Nora Fleming — October 10, 2012 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The 2012 presidential election and many other state and local races are only a few weeks away, but schools are not doing much to promote student interest in the elections or provide civic education more broadly, says new research.

According to a report released today from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, CIRCLE, only eight states have standardized tests specifically in civics and U.S. government at the high school level, and Ohio and Virginia are the only two that require students to pass them in order to graduate. (Civic education is defined as coursework in civics, government, and U.S. government.)

CIRCLE, a nonprofit that performs research on youth participation in politics and civic education, based at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., also found only 21 states require students to take a social studies test (a broader category that includes U.S. history and economics), and only nine require the test be passed to graduate. That number is down from 34 states in 2001 that conducted regular assessments.

Not only that, say the findings, but even in states requiring testing of the subjects, the assessments are primarily multiple-choice and often weakly linked to corresponding state standards, which all states have in social studies.

The news may be interesting to some, especially in an era of heightened testing and accountability pressure on schools, and a push for states to implement the common standards in English/language arts and mathematics, now adopted by nearly every state.

According to Peter Levine, executive director of CIRCLE, the center attributes the decline in assessments in civics, and even social studies more generally, to a lack of mandated testing in the subjects under No Child Left Behind, passed in 2001. That, combined with federal grant programs like Race to the Top geared to other courses, and no requirement to measure knowledge of subjects like history, government, current events, and geography, most states have let these requirements and assessments slacken, he said.

“The standards in most states include some high aspirations, but typically have nothing to do with assessments. The standards are miscellaneous, the assessments are lacking, and when they are high stakes, they are trivial,” Levine said. “I think in a big, deep way, civics and preparation for citizenship has been left out by policymakers, who think in terms of preparation for college and for a difficult labor market but don’t think of civics as part of this.”

That is a mistake, he added, as the growing conversations about “21st-century skills” and “21st-century workforce” mention civic engagement and peer collaboration as necessary skills to have in the future. With findings of the report, especially how students are assessed when states actually do test them, it’s unlikely students will have those skills if something does not change, he said.

According to W. Lance Bennett, a professor of political science at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and director of the Center for Communication & Civic Engagement, students need to be taught civics in a more modern way that is engaging and appropriate to the world they live in.

“The main problem with civic education, when it happens, is that it tends to reflect civic values that young people seldom embrace—the old 20th-century model of dutiful citizenship,” Mr. Bennett said. “Since most teachers, policymakers, and curriculum developers grew up with that model, they often do not appreciate the gap that is created with more peer-oriented, experiential, and digitally mediated forms of engagement preferred by young people.”

(Some examples of this type of instruction are discussed in another one of my blog items here.)

There are some bright spots, however, with the latest news.

Thirty-nine states require high school students to take at least one course in U.S. government and civics to graduate; it’s just that performance in those courses is linked to grade point average (tied to the teacher), and general knowledge base is not measured by statewide assessments.

And while Georgia is slowly phasing out an assessment in social studies, Maryland and Florida will be implementing them in the future. Tennessee also just passed state legislation last year aimed at promoting students’ deeper interest and understanding of public policy and government.

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.