International What the Research Says

It’s Not Just U.S. Students. Civics Scores Have Dropped Around the World

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 28, 2023 5 min read
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Young teenagers’ interest in and understanding of civics has fallen around the world, not just in the United States.

The average civics knowledge for 8th graders across 22 countries fell 13 points (out of 750) from 2016 to 2022 in the International Civic and Citizenship Education study, released this week. That puts students’ understanding of civic concepts and institutions back by more than a dozen years.

“Clearly, we see declines. The question is, are these declines caused by the pandemic?” said Dirk Hastedt, the executive director of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, which administers the ICCS. “That’s something that’s challenging. I think, as a personal opinion, that the results are impacted by the pandemic in the way that teaching and learning didn’t take place without interruption.”

Some 82,000 8th graders in 22 industrialized countries (as well as two German regional education systems) in Europe, Asia, and South America participated in the 2022 civics study. While the United States was not part of the international study, the ICCS results echo those in the National Assessment of Educational Progress in civics, which also tested 8th graders in 2022. For both the NAEP and the ICCS, civics scores fell for the first time in the tests’ administration.

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None of the ICCS countries saw improvements in civics, while six countries’ performance declined: Bulgaria, Colombia, Lithuania, Norway, Slovenia, and Sweden. The rest flatlined. There had been widespread increases and no country-level declines during the 2016 and 2009 tests.

The average civics knowledge scores for 8th graders across ICCS countries fell from 517 in 2016 to 504 in 2022.

There are also more students performing at the lowest achievement levels in civics. Students performing at the highest achievement level in civics, level A, have deep knowledge and understanding of civic and citizenship concepts and evidence of some critical perspective. Students performing at level B demonstrate some more specific understanding of the most common civic institutions, systems, and concepts. At level C, students can understand fundamental principles and broad concepts of civics and citizenship. Students at level D are familiar with concrete content relating to basic features of democracy.

For example, a little more than half of students across the participating countries could explain how voter privacy, voter identification, and the length of a voting period relate to election fairness, a level B task. Two-thirds of all participating 8th graders could compare the concepts of direct and representative democratic governance, a level C question.

And across countries, only 2 percent to 30 percent of students could answer a level A task, to suggest features to improve democratic decision-making in a vote-by-phone app for a club—such as providing text-to-speech readers or not showing the names of those voting.

The United States also saw unprecedented declines in 2022, when more than 30 percent of 8th graders performed at the below basic proficiency level in civics. Though the tests are not directly comparable, the NAEP, like ICCS, asks students questions about foundational concepts in civics, the role of citizens, and governmental forms and institutions.

In all but two ICCS countries, girls outperformed boys in civics. The average girls’ scale score was 26 points higher than the average boys’ score. That echoes recent gender disparities in other international test subjects like reading and science, but Hastedt said it’s not clear yet whether gender gaps in civics reflect specific changes in boys’ and girls’ civic engagement.

“We’ve had a lot of emphasis in the past on girls’ education, especially in STEM subjects,” Hastedt said. “I think the global community did great in having girls keeping up with the boys. Now we need to make sure that we are not losing the boys in certain areas.”

Critical engagement

The ICCS study measures 8th graders’ civics knowledge as well as their behavior, intentions, and attitudes toward current civic debates, such as environmental sustainability; digital technology; and diversity and equal rights.

For example, nearly three-quarters of students said they believed immigrants strengthened their country. Higher shares of students voiced concerns about climate change, water shortages, and pollution in 2022 compared with 2016.

Three-quarters of students who participated in ICCS said they planned to vote in their country’s elections when they became eligible, up from 51 percent in 2016. Students who performed in the highest two achievement levels in civic knowledge were not only significantly more likely to say they would vote than students who performed at lower achievement levels, but also less likely to protest in illegal ways, such as by blocking traffic or creating graffiti.

Half of students in 2022 reported they got information about social and political issues from television, and only 22 percent learned about those issues via newspapers. That’s a 20 percentage-point drop in students’ use of both forms of media since 2016.The 30 percent who reported getting civic and political information from the internet was mostly flat from 2016.

By contrast, the share of global students who said they are talking to their parents regularly about social and political issues jumped from 24 percent in 2009 to 34 percent in 2022.

“One hypothesis might be that [students] were more at home, so they had more opportunities to talk to their parents, but maybe COVID-19 also initiated more discussions at home,” Hastedt said. “We see that also parents have maybe stronger ideas, beliefs, attitudes [during the pandemic], and so they were discussing it maybe more at home.”

The participating countries ranged from liberal democracies like Denmark to electoral autocracies like Serbia.
While 75 percent of students said they thought democracies were the best form of government, only 55 percent said they thought their political system “worked well.”

Civics education differs significantly from country to country, from standalone classes to topics integrated into social studies or across all subject areas. But in classes where teachers encouraged students to talk about even contentious issues, Hastedt said, student had higher civics knowledge and engagement.

In schools where students are not penalized for voicing an opinion and are engaged in open discussions with other students and the teacher, Hastedt said, “this is strongly related to the civic knowledge of the students. ... That’s a pattern we are seeing across countries.”

The study asked common questions across countries, but also had separate assessments covering more specific regional topics. Results for those regional tests will be released early next year.

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