Few States Test Students on Civics

By Nora Fleming — October 11, 2012 8 min read
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The 2012 presidential election and many state and local races are only a few weeks away, but schools are not doing much to promote student interest in the elections or provide civic education more broadly, new research suggests.

A report last week from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass., found only eight states have standardized tests specifically in civics education at the high school level, and Ohio and Virginia alone require students to pass them to graduate.

It also says only 21 states mandate that students take a social studies test—the broader discipline that includes history, geography, and civics—and only nine require that they pass it to earn a diploma. That number is down from 34 states that conducted regular assessments in 2001.

And most of those tests, according to the findings, are weakly linked to state standards and do not test deeper knowledge of the subject matter at hand.

The findings help document what many in education have been saying since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act more than a decade ago. An emphasis on reading and mathematics, driven by the law’s testing and accountability requirements, has cut into the time and attention devoted to some of the other subjects.

“I think in a big, deep way, civics and preparation for citizenship has been left out by policymakers, who think in terms of preparation for college and for a difficult labor market but don’t think of civics as part of this,” said Peter Levine, the executive director of CIRCLE.

“The standards in most states include some high aspirations,” he said, “but typically have nothing to do with assessments. The standards are miscellaneous, the assessments are lacking, and when they are high stakes, they are trivial.”


While some efforts are under way to promote the study of social studies subjects, including civics—the development of a common framework for social studies, among them—the current status of basic student knowledge and performance in those disciplines is lackluster, according to reports.

Number of Years of Social Studies Required

Forty states require high school students to take at least three years of social studies to graduate; in 39 states, courses include civics/U.S. government.


SOURCE: Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

The 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress in social studies, which includes civics, for example, found only around one-quarter of the 4th, 8th, and 12th graders who took it were rated “proficient” or above.

Fewer than half of 4th grade students could accurately answer the multiple-choice question of what political party the president of the United States belongs to.

According to Mr. Levine, the decline in assessments in civics, and social studies, can be attributed to a lack of mandated testing in the subjects under the NCLB Act, signed into law in 2002. That, combined with federal grant programs like Race to the Top, which is geared toward math, science, and reading, and no requirement that states measure knowledge of the arts and humanities, means most states have let those requirements and assessments slide, he said.

While few states have state-level assessments in civics, 39 require high school students to take at least one course in U.S. government and civics to graduate; all but two, Colorado and Iowa, require social studies coursework.

But many say the quality of the courses is typically subpar.

According to Frederick M. Hess, a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute and a co-author of the new book Making Civics Count, most schools do not have strong classes in social studies, especially civics. Some of that he attributes to a lack of consensus over what content to include, how best to teach it, and how to evaluate students’ knowledge accurately.

“I think the state of civics and citizenship education has been in disrepair for the past decade, jammed into the corner of the attic like an old bicycle with a flat tire,” said Mr. Hess, who also writes an opinion blog for Education Week.

‘Fewer and Better’

Whether increasing assessments of the subject would change that is open for debate.

“We’ve walked ourselves into a box canyon: Do we subject history and civics to the same crude, poorly constructed assessments used in reading and math,” added Mr. Hess, “or not assess them at all, and stay concerned the subjects are not taken seriously and being marginalized? Right now, there is no good choice.”

More testing is not necessarily the best choice, many experts say. The new research found, for example, that most state assessments in civics (and social studies), when they are administered, focus almost solely on multiple-choice questions that require rote memorization.

The key will be designing “fewer and better tests” that cover a broad range of curricula without inundating students with more tests, said Diana Hess, who has studied state social studies standards for more than three decades and serves as the senior vice president at the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation. (She is not related to Mr. Hess.) While the current status of civics education is dismal, some bright spots may be ahead, she said.

For one, a social studies framework under development by some 20 states and organizations may help states and schools implement a higher-quality curriculum. In addition, the common standards in English/language arts emphasize developing literacy skills across disciplines and unique to each, she said.

Lastly, Ms. Hess said, the growing national attention to building students’ 21st-century skills and a 21st-century workforce could have a positive impact, as civic engagement is often deemed one of those skills.

According to Kathleen Porter-Magee, the senior director of the high-quality-standards project at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s office in Dayton, Ohio, the time and effort needed to prioritize civics and change the teaching and testing of it might be too daunting for states to do in a silo. A cross-disciplinary improvement approach, provided through the English/language arts standards, may be the best bet, she said.

“The challenge with setting standards for social studies, but only assessing ELA and math, is that localities get the message that social studies is somehow less important: that what is most important is what’s measured,” she said. “But now the common core’s focus on balancing ELA with a content-rich curriculum in all subjects, with its focus on increasing the level of rigor in reading across the curriculum, we have the opportunity to improve social studies and civics.”

Hands-On Testing

The discussion about 21st-century skills and workplace demands may not just increase interest in civic education, but also provide a forum for discussion on what the discipline should include and how to change the way it is tested.

To some educators, the thrust of a civics curriculum should be less about knowing the facts about U.S. government and more about promoting active and engaged participation in civic life—considered a tough task through basic lecture and book work.

According to W. Lance Bennett, a professor of political science at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and the director of the Center for Communication and Civic Engagement, civics need to be taught in a relevant way.

“The main problem with civic education, when it happens, is that it tends to reflect civic values that young people seldom embrace—the old 20th-century model of dutiful citizenship,” Mr. Bennett said. “Since most teachers, policymakers, and curriculum developers grew up with that model, they often do not appreciate the gap that is created with more peer-oriented, experiential, and digitally mediated forms of engagement preferred by young people.”

Some states could follow the route Tennessee is taking. Legislation passed this year requires schools to administer project-based assessments in civics once in grades 4-8 and once in grades 9-12.

School districts will determine when and how to evaluate students, but the testing should require that students demonstrate deeper understanding of the subject by completing hands-on, problem-solving activities, according to Janis Kyser, the director of the Tennessee Center for Civic Learning and Engagement, who lobbied for passage of the bill.

Additionally, the state legislature gave $100,000 to the state education department to provide technical assistance to districts.

According to Ms. Kyser, state officials started to show more interest in teaching and assessing civics when they heard complaints from the business community.

“We completed a survey of major employers in Tennessee that showed the public schools were providing students who were brilliant in math and science, but could not get through an interview,” said Ms. Kyser.

The students lacked “citizenship skills, knowledge of rights and responsibilities, public policy, and the role of government,” she said, which employers believed were essential to functioning well in the workplace.

Other states may also be renewing interest in civics. Though Georgia is slowly phasing out a social studies test, Florida and Maryland will soon begin implementing one.

Paul Baumann, the director of the National Center for Learning and Citizenship at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said there has been a rise in interest in civics education by states, but the discussion has leaned toward how states can help schools teach the subject better to make students more civic-minded.

“I sense the conversation changing,” he said. “There is definitely a growing interest, but there’s not a critical mass yet, nationally. I don’t know if there needs to be—maybe just a critical mass, state by state.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2012 edition of Education Week as Student Mastery of Civics Ed. Goes Untested


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