Could Testing Wreck Civics Education?

By Catherine Gewertz — September 17, 2019 11 min read
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Imagine that you’re in charge of civics instruction in your state or district. You want to figure out whether this new approach you’re taking—emphasizing not just knowing civics facts, but living a civically engaged life—is working. What do you do? Do you survey students to explore their actions and attitudes, asking if they’re engaged in community issues, for example, or if they see themselves as empowered to make change?

Or do you give a standardized multiple-choice test? You could ask them to identify the three branches of government, or press for more complex thinking as in this question from Florida’s state exam: How did Britain’s King George try to dismantle the early U.S. government, and how does today’s national government uphold the principles of freedom and self-governance?

The question of how to assess civics learning is cropping up in conversations now as civics instruction undergoes a renaissance in schools across the country. Schools are reinventing the subject as a force that goes far beyond teaching the nuts and bolts of government. They’re aiming to forge young people into politically active adults with a strong sense of their power to bring about change for the common good, and give them the know-how to make it happen.

See Also: Citizen Z: An Education Week Project

As schools move toward that vision, they realize they’ll need some type of assessment to figure out whether this new kind of instruction is working. The problem is the standardized kind that dominates the landscape doesn’t work well when schools want to measure whether students have embraced civic behaviors like volunteering or voting, or adopted civic attitudes and values such as a sense of public duty.

Leaders in the new-civics movement are nervous. If states pledge allegiance to large-scale standardized tests as a measure of civics learning, will they kill off its best qualities? Will those tests do to civics what No Child Left Behind-mandated tests did to English/language arts and math: narrow the curriculum down to ideas that can be captured by filling in a bubble sheet?

“It’s a very big challenge, and there’s no real answer yet,” said Louise Dubé, the executive director of iCivics, a group that creates online civics resources and hosted a convening of experts to discuss civics assessment last January. “No one’s really cracked that nut.”

Evaluating Hard-to-Measure Skills

Innovative models of assessment are giving educators ideas and hope as they figure out how to gauge hard-to-measure skills in civics, such as leadership or empathy.

Carlos Hipolito-Delgado, an associate professor of counseling at the University of Colorado, has worked with colleagues to create an evaluation protocol called MYPA, Measures of Youth Policy Arguments.

It started out as a way to get students prepared for presentations on action-civics projects. But it’s morphed into a formative and summative tool: Teachers in Denver are using it to guide and support students’ projects and to score them once they’re presented, Hipolito-Delgado said.

Because the evaluation lends itself to the doing of civics, not just the learning of it, Hipolito-Delgado views it as a tool to infuse civics learning with an ingredient that’s too often missing: students’ own voices and experiences. An assessment like that, he said, is “revolutionary.”

Civics educators are also pinning some hope on technological innovations that will make it easier to assess hard-to-measure attitudes and dispositions.

High Resolves is an Australian technology company that builds digital platforms that immerse students in civics simulations. One of its signature exercises is a global negotiation, in which students play ambassadors who are working to reduce carbon emissions. As each round of negotiations unfolds in the classroom, students enter their decisions into devices, creating patterns of decisionmaking.

CEO and co-founder Mehrdad Baghai said he and his colleagues are working to mine that digital information and pinpoint the “subconstructs”—pieces—of behaviors, like leadership, or personal qualities, like empathy, that students exhibit during the role play.

Educators could then use that “sandpit” of data tidbits—in combination with student questionnaires and follow-up work—to “get a read on” the qualities they’re interested in, he said.

“We’re going to challenge the whole idea of designing a ‘test’ for every competency,” Baghai said. “These different bits can be assembled, whether you’re assessing for empathy or integrative thinking or inclusive leadership or social advocacy. Why do a separate three-hour multiple-choice test?”

As of now, civics educators’ nut-cracking efforts have produced a curious, two-layered reality: At the state level, it’s become popular to require students to pass the same standardized, 10-question test that immigrants take to win citizenship. Closer to the ground, teachers, districts, and researchers are quietly insisting on redefining what “assessment” means. It’s not data gathered from long rows of students bent over test sheets. It’s nuanced feedback drawn from complex student projects, using methods like surveys, grading rubrics, and performance tasks.

In their rush to prioritize civics education, many states have taken the fast road to testing: They require students to pass the U.S. citizenship test. More than a dozen states require this test, use questions from it, or have added to it to create customized civics exams, according to the Civics Education Initiative, which spearheaded a campaign to support the test’s use.

What to Measure

But using the citizenship test as a proxy for civics mastery gets a torrent of criticism from leaders who favor the new, broader conception of civics education. They argue that having to name the two chambers of Congress, or the ocean on the West Coast—two of the 100 questions that can appear on the 10-question test—doesn’t come close to covering what students really need to be prepared for civic life as adults.

“They don’t tell us if young people know how to mobilize their communities to get resources or pass laws they care about,” said Jessica Marshall, who oversaw social studies in Chicago, and is now pursuing her doctoral degree.

But the backers of the citizenship-test initiative say critics have distorted their idea. They don’t advocate using it as a substitute for comprehensive immersion in civics study.

“It’s just the first step before moving up the ladder into higher level learning,” said Lucian Spataro Jr., the Civics Education Initiative’s chief academic officer.

Few states have embraced large-scale testing to measure civics learning. Florida and Massachusetts are taking that path, but with the intent to redefine standardized assessment.

In response to a 2010 law that requires a middle school civics course and exam, Florida created a test that’s widely seen as the best current example of a comprehensive and in-depth test of civics knowledge. First administered in 2013-14, it’s a 2 ½-hour digital multiple-choice test. But experts say it sets a new standard for questions that demand high levels of complex thinking.

Even so, Florida’s test also illustrates the limitations of standardized assessment. Some of the state’s civics standards cover competencies that are impossible to capture with test questions. They include expectations that students “simulate the trial process and the role of juries” in administering justice, and “experience the responsibilities of citizens at the local, state, or federal levels.” The panel of experts charged with creating test questions concluded that some standards “were not appropriate to include” on the test, a state department of education spokeswoman said.

“The test attempts to get at those things indirectly, and it doesn’t always do it well,” said Stephen Masyada, the director of the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship at the University of Central Florida, which provides teacher training for the civics course.

Florida is trying to learn about the impact of its civics instruction in other ways, too. The state education department has teamed up with a half-dozen organizations to survey students’ attitudes and beliefs in 10 areas related to civics instruction, from civic “virtues” like helping others to community involvement and tolerance of others’ viewpoints.

It doesn’t use the results to rate schools; it shares them with districts so they can reflect on, and adjust, instruction.

The survey showed that more than three-quarters of students believe it’s important to “speak up” for liberty and equality, defend the U.S. Constitution, and make their communities better places to live. But when it came to taking action, they got lower marks: Fewer than 3 in 10 said they’re interested in political issues or qualified to participate in them, and more than 4 in 10 said they never took part in student government, or volunteered their time to help at hospitals, food banks, and other community organizations.

One of the controversial aspects of Florida’s test is that it carries high stakes. Even if schools aren’t held accountable for the survey results, proficiency rates factor into schools’ A-F rankings, and students’ scores influence whether they’re promoted from middle to high school.

Those kinds of consequences worry some, who fear that teachers will focus too much instruction on what’s on the test. But others argue that the value of Florida’s statewide test overshadows potential drawbacks.

“This test isn’t perfect. But if you don’t have the assessment, you’re not in the game,” said Robert Brazofsky, who is Miami-Dade County’s social studies director and helped develop the new civics exam.

“Assessment allows you as a subject area to be in the thick of it, to be considered important,” he said. “It translates to principals calling your office and asking questions, people fighting to get into your professional development, and schools placing their most talented teachers in civics courses.”

Improving Instruction

Florida testing data have also enabled schools to shift instruction to better support students, Brazofsky said. In Miami-Dade, leaders noticed that students often stumbled on questions with text from primary sources written in older-style English, such as The Federalist Papers. They assembled teams of English teachers to coach social studies teachers on how to “break down” that language for students, Brazofsky said.

Massachusetts, where a new law requires middle school students to study civics with student-led “action” projects, is working on an 8th grade test. Leaders of that project are aiming for a newfangled kind of exam that better measures the “doing” of civics, not just the “knowing,” and that teachers won’t hate for siphoning time away from instruction.

“Since we’re not required by [the Every Student Succeeds Act] to have a social science assessment, we do have an opportunity to experiment with new forms of assessment,” said Jeff Wulfson, the state’s deputy commissioner of education. “We’re trying to create something that reduces [testing] time, and is really seamless with the lessons going on.”

One part of the test—likely short essays—would be scored at the state level, to allow comparisons among schools. The other part would be school-based projects and tasks scored locally by teachers, using common guidelines. Teams of teachers are writing those tasks now, Wulfson said.

Even in a test that allows students to describe or demonstrate their learning, though, some of the state’s civics standards are probably still too difficult to convert into test questions, Wulfson said. Massachusetts standards include civic “dispositions, values, virtues, and behaviors,” such as respect for others, a “commitment to equality,” communicating in ways that are accessible to others, and a “capacity for listening.”

“Good communication skills are probably possible [to assess], but respect for others is a little out there in terms of our ability to create an assessment to measure that,” he said.

A Different Approach

About the Citizen Z Project

U.S. public education is rooted in the belief by early American leaders that the most important knowledge to impart to young people is what it means to be a citizen. If America is experiencing a civic crisis now, as many say it is, schools may well be failing at that job.

To understand the role of education in preparing the next generation of citizens, Education Week began a series of articles, surveys, and projects in early 2018. This article is part of that ongoing effort. Look for more pieces from our Citizen Z project in the months ahead.

In Illinois, where a 2015 law requires students to take a semester of civics that includes service learning and democracy simulations, the strategy is to assess students’ learning, attitudes, and behaviors through surveys, projects, and performance tasks.

It’s an approach that requires a lot of patience and hard work from teachers, since many don’t know how to create their own assessments of hard-to-measure civics skills and attitudes, said Mary Ellen Daneels, a social studies teacher in West Chicago who mentors teachers on civics instruction.

She’s leading an effort funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, which has played a lead role shaping civics instruction in Illinois, to bring teachers together to learn how to create mini-projects, questions, and evaluation rubrics that help them judge students’ work on a range of hard-to-measure civics skills. The American Institutes for Research, which designs assessments, is also working with the group and providing funding.

The original plan started with Illinois teachers, but quickly expanded to include 20 teachers from four states. The tasks teachers created last summer illustrate what it can look like when assessment is indistinguishable from instruction.

Teresa Kruger, a high school teacher from Belvedere, Ill., worked with two out-of-state colleagues to create a performance assessment for a service-learning project. Students would research historically disadvantaged groups and how they created change, through legislation or civil disobedience. Then they’d identify a community need and a project to address that need. Finally, at the heart of the assessment, they’d put the pieces together, analyzing links between what they studied and what they did, how well it worked, and whether it influenced their thinking about their futures as citizens.

Piloting the task at her school, Kruger’s students zeroed in on foster children, and learned that they often lacked school supplies. They organized a jewelry-making event, sold the jewelry, and used the proceeds to purchase supplies, Kruger said.

“This is way different from how I used to assess, and most teachers assess,” Kruger said. “It’s difficult. We needed to immerse them, really engage them, in something. We got to think about what is it—the skills, the attitudes—we really want these kids to walk away with? But it was really good. Really good.”

Many civics educators say that the current moment represents an opportunity that No Child Left Behind missed: to gather testing data, but use the information to support—not punish—schools.

Marshall, for instance, the former Chicago social studies supervisor, argues for a new approach to accountability, in which feedback from civics assessments is used to reward schools for doing things like including students in their budgeting process, or in redesigning curricula.

“Those kinds of things would be ways to make sure schools are providing rich opportunities for students, and that civic engagement is at the core of the work they do,” she said.

Many civics leaders are pinning some hope on technology’s potential to measure students’ civic thinking and dispositions. Some innovators, for instance, are working on ways to identify skills like leadership or empathy as students make choices in digital platforms that immerse them in civics simulations.

In schools and districts, educators are hopeful but nervous. What form will testing take? Will states take the fast-and-affordable approach, which cheats complex questions? Or embrace a tougher, costlier, but more nuanced method?

“Yeah, I worry a lot,” said Gorman Lee, the social studies director in Braintree, Mass., and a past president of the Massachusetts Council of the Social Studies.

“Will teachers just be teaching to what they know is on the test? I feel like there’s a point in time where you just really need to focus on your students in the classroom,” Lee said.

“Are they getting it? And what is the ‘it’? The biggest thing, to me, is for students to realize their voices have a great deal to contribute to the community and that they need to be active participants. If they get that, they’ll be on the right path.”

Do you have a good idea for teaching civics or encouraging K-12 students to develop civic behaviors and attitudes? Education Week, as part of its ongoing Citizen Z initiative, is looking to gather 100 good ideas for teaching civics. Send your tips, quick lessons, after-school activities, and community projects to
A version of this article appeared in the September 18, 2019 edition of Education Week as Could Testing Wreck Civics Education?


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