Social Studies What the Research Says

Civics Is About Skills, Not Just Facts. How Do Schools Measure Students’ Readiness?

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 19, 2023 4 min read
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Better civics knowledge helps students make informed decisions, but more knowledgeable students also are more likely to be active citizens in the first place.

That’s why, as educators explore mastery assessments in subjects like math and reading, a new report by the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University argues civics education needs a similar overhaul to more deeply gauge students’ citizenship skills and their level of engagement in government and communities.

“It is really challenging to do an accurate, full-scope assessment of civic preparation,” said Michael Rebell, a professor of law and educational practice and the executive director of the center. “It’s not all skills that you can test with a good paper-and-pencil test—you need to test dispositions, experiences, skills like media literacy—and it takes a lot of creativity to figure out a fair, valid way to do that.”

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The report finds that as of 2023, 21 states require, for graduation or end-of-course credits, that students pass a test drawn from the 100-item test of basic facts used for those applying for U.S. citizenship. The naturalization exam includes questions like, “Name one war the United States fought in the 1800s” and “What do we call the first 10 amendments to the Constitution?” Studies have found these basic memorization tests do not give a good gauge of students’ understanding of civics institutions and concepts, nor do they help predict whether students will actually vote or otherwise engage in civic processes as adults.

Of all states, only Tennessee requires students to take both the fact-based naturalization exam and project-based assessments. Another three states, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Washington, require schools to provide project-based civics assessments. Six states also allow schools to award “civics seals” as part of a high school diploma for students who engage in capstone projects that involve more active civics.

Capstone projects have included, for example, researching a community problem and proposing solutions at a town hall meeting or studying the history and evolution of particular laws.

“For naturalization tests, the conclusion that they lead to is that you just need to know some facts about how the government runs and the history of the country in order to be an effective civic participant,” said Jessica Wolff, the policy and research director at the equity center. “Civic-seal projects assume and help to develop a much more extensive understanding of what it really takes to be an effective civic participant, the full set of skills and dispositions and knowledge and behaviors. Within that, you also begin to create these continuums for the kinds of behaviors that you want to see in later adulthood but that you can see authentic instances of in middle school and high school-aged people.”

Studies find service-learning activities, like those used for project-based assessments and civics seal capstones, can be more effective in both helping students understand civics concepts and encouraging them to be active citizens. Yet, Wolff noted, most states and districts are still hammering out effective ways to measure what students are learning as they undertake more active and complex civics activities.

Knowledge-engagement connections

In 2022, 8th graders’ civic knowledge fell for the first time in the history of both the primary national and international civics tests, setting students back more than a dozen years.

Students showed facile understanding of even basic civics concepts, too.

For example, when given pictures of the White House, the U.S. Capitol, and the U.S. Supreme Court building in the National Assessment of Educational Progress for civics, 57 percent of 8th graders could match the executive branch with the president, the judicial branch with the high court, and the legislative branch with Congress.

But when asked what America’s branches of government actually do, only 1 in 3 students knew that Congress makes laws, courts interpret the laws, and the president carries out the laws.

Deeper understanding of government institutions and citizens’ rights and responsibilities is associated with better civic engagement. Eighth graders with higher civics knowledge in the global test, for example, were more likely to report they would vote as adults and less likely to say they would engage in illegal activities like violent protests. They were also more likely than students with low civic understanding to voice support for equal rights for women.

“We can see how important civic knowledge is because of this,” said Dirk Hastedt, the executive director of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, which administers the International Civic and Citizenship Education assessment. “[Students with more civics proficiency] were more, well, open-minded and positive—I think the kind of citizens that we all probably wish we will have.”

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