Social Studies What the Research Says

Elections Depend on Young Voters. Can Civics Tests Drive Up Their Turnout?

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 10, 2022 3 min read
Ben Wigginton contemplates his votes at the Braddock Heights Community Center in Braddock Heights, Md., on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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, only 5 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.

Related stories

Seniors Jazmine Duff, right, and India Willis look over a document as they wait to vote early with other students from Walter Hines Page High School at a polling station in Greensboro, N.C. The field trips to the polls have spawned praise and controversy.
Seniors Jazmine Duff, right, and India Willis look over a document as they wait to vote early with other students from Walter Hines Page High School at a polling station in Greensboro, N.C. The field trips to the polls have spawned praise and controversy.
Eamon Queeney for Education Week

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.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Personalized Learning Webinar
No Time to Waste: Individualized Instruction Will Drive Change
Targeted support and intervention can boost student achievement. Join us to explore tutoring’s role in accelerating the turnaround. 
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Social-Emotional Learning: Making It Meaningful
Join us for this event with educators and experts on the damage the pandemic did to academic and social and emotional well-being.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Privacy & Security Webinar
K-12 Cybersecurity in the Real World: Lessons Learned & How to Protect Your School
Gain an expert understanding of how school districts can improve their cyber resilience and get ahead of cybersecurity challenges and threats.
Content provided by Microsoft

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Social Studies Opinion I'm a State Election Chief. We Need to Do Something About Civics Education
With political polarization growing, schools are our best hope for imparting democratic values, writes Kentucky's secretary of state.
Michael G. Adams
4 min read
conceptual illustration of people gathering to form the map of the continental United States of America
Social Studies Opinion I Am a High School Junior. I’m Not Prepared to Vote
I will be voting for the rest of my life, so why aren't I taught how to do so in school?
Sidhi Dhanda
3 min read
Illustration of diverse hands holding up checkmarks
Social Studies Is a Comprehensive U.S. History Course Still Possible? Scholars Weigh In
Historians say a pluralistic view is possible, but more needs to be done to help students explore contested narratives and perspectives.
5 min read
111622 GLC Conference 1 BS
History teachers from across the country discuss innovative ways to teach racial history at a conference hosted earlier this month by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University.
Photo courtesy of Daniel Vieira
Social Studies Opinion What’s the Point of Civics Education?
Teachers seem to be embracing a notion of civics education that is largely content-free.
3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty