Schools can help instill students with long-term habits of civic engagement and voting—but a new study suggests that requiring students to take a civics test may not be the best way to do it.
Though the results of the 2022 elections have not entirely shaken out, exit poll data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University suggest 27 percent of young voters turned out. If confirmed, that would be the second-highest midterm election participation for those ages 18-29 since 1994 (second only to the rate of youth voting in 2018’s midterms.)
But the new Pennsylvania State University study calls into question the usefulness of civics education accountability to drive students’ voting behaviors later on.
In a working paper released this month by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, Penn State researchers Maithreyi Gopalan, an education and public policy assistant, and doctoral researcher Jilli Jung analyzed voting trends among 18- to 22-year-olds in elections from 1996 to 2020.
Starting with Arizona in 1996, 18 states adopted the Civics Education Initiative, which requires students to take and/or pass a test of civics knowledge in order to graduate high school. In many states, the test questions are drawn from the 100 basic federal historical and civic facts included in the United States naturalization test, which immigrants must pass to become U.S. citizens, though some states later expanded the test content or called for the tests to be administered as part of broader civics education courses and assessments. The researchers tracked youth voting in individual states before and after they adopted CEI policies. They also compared voter turnout among states that had strong or weak implementation of the civics education requirements, or no policy at all.
They found that young people in states that required the civics tests for graduation were at most 1.5 percentage points more likely to vote than peers in states that didn’t have such civics requirements—statistically, no difference. Nor did high school civics requirements increase voting among underrepresented groups of students—Black students actually saw a decrease in voting, though again, not a significant one.
In part, this may be because of ongoing differences in how educators approach civics education. In one recent RAND survey, only5 percent of public school teachers said they thought civics education should prepare students for future political engagement. Nearly 70 percent said the main goal of civics education was to foster critical thinking.
“If states hope to improve civic participation among successive generations of citizen leaders, they need to do a lot more (or a lot different) than just mandate a civic test policy aimed at testing civic and political knowledge for high school graduation,” they concluded.
“Because civics is literally baked into all that we do—it is an education in the relationships that we have structured around one another—I think [civics education] has to be a very big picture activity,” said Christopher Riano, the president of the Center for Civic Education. “It doesn’t begin and or end in any classroom and it doesn’t begin and or end at any age. It’s something that actually sticks with us from cradle through career, and it’s a constant educational experience.”
For example, other studies have found civics interventions geared to more practical instruction—such as instructions on how to register and vote, or school-based registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns—boosted voting among young people by 5 percent to 7 percent or more, depending on the intervention.
However, studies conducted earlier this fall found many schools do not help their eligible high schoolers register to vote—even in states where this is required.
And class discussions that ask students to reflect on what they have already experienced in past elections can encourage them to be more active in the future. In one study published earlier this summer, young adults who were asked to think about how they had felt during the U.S. presidential election in 2016 were more likely to say they would vote in a new election if it were held today.