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Exam Shows 9th Graders Understand Their Basic Civics

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — May 02, 2001 5 min read
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By the time they enter high school, most American students have acquired the basic knowledge and skills experts have identified as important for democratic citizenship, but formal civic education is far from universal, and too many students are ill-prepared to participate actively in civic life, concludes a report released last week.

American 14-year-olds performed well in the International Civic Education Study, which was administered to 90,000 students in 28 democratic countries. Overall, the U.S. 9th graders were among the most knowledgeable in the world about civic principles and pivotal ideas, and they scored above the international average in the skills necessary to interpret civic-related information from political leaflets to newspaper articles. No other country outperformed the United States by a significant margin.

Good News

“This is a good-news story,” said Judith Torney-Purta, a professor of human development at the University of Maryland College Park and a lead author of the report. “Students really have an understanding of the basic principles and narrative of democracy, though they may not have gotten the details, such as the content of specific documents or being able to put wars on a timeline. Whether this is enough or not is a question we have to deal with,” she said.

The CivEd assessment, as it is called, was designed to measure students’ knowledge and understanding of fundamental principles that are universal across democracies. (“28-Nation Study: Students’ Grasp of Civics Is Mixed,” March 21, 2001.)

The follow-up report released last week includes more detailed information about the performance of U.S. students as well as information about their backgrounds, schools, and home characteristics. The study also attempts to gauge students’ attitudes toward and participation in civic life.

Conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Attainment, or IEA, the Netherlands-based organization that conducted the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, the civics test was made up of 38 multiple-choice questions. It was given to 2,800 students in 124 public and private U.S. schools in October 1999.

Seven years in the making, the study is the first survey of civic education undertaken by the organization since 1971.

The test differs from the civics portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP, which includes multiple-choice questions and questions that call for written responses, tests students’ detailed knowledge of the U.S. government and democratic processes. That exam, last given in 1998, found American 4th and 8th graders generally have a weak grasp of the underlying principles of the U.S. Constitution and how governments operate. (“Beyond Basics, Civics Eludes U.S. Students,” Nov. 24, 1999.)

Underlying Reality

While the CivEd report’s authors and sponsors expressed enthusiasm over the results, some experts in the field hoped that optimism would not obscure the deeper reality: Most students are not getting an adequate preparation for citizenship in school.

“I’m hardly ready to claim victory in terms of what students know about civics,” said Margaret S. Branson, the associate director of the Center for Civic Education in Calabasas, Calif. “I’m gratified to see that [students] understand the importance of freedom of expression and some of the basic principles of democracy, but I think it is overblown to say the students from the United States performed substantially higher than the rest of the world.”

The report, Ms. Branson contended, “communicates a false sense of where we are.”

Students with more exposure to civic-related courses, such as civics, social studies, and history, showed greater knowledge and skills on the test, the study found, yet many students do not have adequate instruction in the subject.

According to the study, 30 percent of high schools require 9th graders to take a civic-related subject. A little more than half required the freshmen to take at least five periods of social studies, history, or civics each week.

The achievement gap between minority and white students that has persisted in test scores in other subjects was also evident in the civics-exam results. While non-Hispanic white students scored an average 111.6 points on a 160-point scale on total civic knowledge, Hispanic students averaged 97.1 points and African-American students, 92.7 points.

Most students in the study indicated that their civic- related coursework focused primarily on domestic issues. Fewer than half reported covering topics related to other countries’ governments or to international organizations.

The study concludes that students who were exposed to classroom practices deemed more “democratic,” such as open discussion of issues and participatory activities, showed greater civic knowledge and skills than students who experienced a less expansive instructional approach.

But a majority of students reported that textbooks and worksheets were the primary tools of instruction in their social studies courses. While more than 88 percent of students said they read from textbooks and filled out worksheets in class, just 27 percent said they wrote letters to newspapers to give their opinions, and 45 percent reported debating and discussing ideas in class.

The results, some observers said, suggest that school plays an important part in informing and preparing students for active citizenship.

“It’s really very satisfying and encouraging to see that U.S. 9th graders were in the top group of all the countries on their civic knowledge,” said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the U.S. representative to the IEA. “The fact that the more students are, in fact, studying civics and social studies the higher their scores, shows a direct relationship [to] the importance of the schools.”

The study also makes clear that American schools have a way to go toward providing high-quality civics programs. "[The study] is proclaiming that kids get a good dose of civics in social studies, history, or geography,” Ms. Branson said. “If you look deeper, you see they have just an acquaintance with the principles.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2001 edition of Education Week as Exam Shows 9th Graders Understand Their Basic Civics

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