More than a third of states require that students take a test of basic knowledge and U.S. government and democracy in high school.
However, a new study finds that having this requirement in place doesn’t lead to young people being more likely to participate in the core of the democratic process—voting.
The study, from researchers at The Pennsylvania State University, examined the voting patterns of young adults after these tests were put in place. The researchers found that young people in states with the assessment were no more likely to vote than young people in states without the requirement.
The findings lend support to a growing school of thought in civics education—that knowing how the political system works in the abstract, while valuable, isn’t enough on its own to encourage young people to participate in it. Students need to practice civic engagement, too.
“Traditional approaches to civic education, which emphasize increasing students’ political knowledge through rote memorization and standardized tests, doesn’t seem very promising in terms of increasing students’ civic engagement,” said Jilli Jung, a doctoral student at Penn State, and the lead author on the study.
In the paper, the researchers call for more participatory civic education, which other research has shown can increase voter turnout—activities like school get-out-the-vote campaigns, or trips to visit elected officials.
Other civics experts agree.
“My biggest fear with this paper coming out is that people will see it and assume that civic ed. isn’t worth investing in at all. And that’s not the case. If anything, this shows that small, token initiatives aren’t enough,” said Kelly Siegel-Stechler, a senior researcher at the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. Siegel-Stechler was not involved with the paper.
“We need much more holistic, sustained civic education for young people,” she said. “The takeaway if anything should be to do more, and not less—and not leave it to the last minute.”
Experts ‘not surprised’ by the findings
The study seeks to examine the effect of requiring high school students to take the full U.S. naturalization test—a series of questions given to immigrants who are applying for United States citizenship. (Students typically answer all the questions, whereas those applying for citizenship are asked only 10.)
The Joe Foss Institute, a civic education organization, launched a state legislative push in 2015 to make this test a requirement for high school graduation—the Civic Education Initiative. Over the next two years, 17 states approvedlaws of this kind, although not all require students to earn a particular score. A few states have joined this group recently: Oklahoma and New Hampshire both passed graduation requirements in 2021.
The hope was that requiring an assessment in civics would force schools to make the subject an instructional priority, said Lucian Spataro, who was previously the CEO of the Joe Foss Institute. The Institute has since joined the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, where Spataro is now the interim director.
“If it’s tested, it’s taught,” Spataro said.
Civics had faced years of neglect in favor of tested subjects, like English/language arts, math, and STEM, he said. “We came up with the idea of [the Civic Education Initiative] as a step forward to shine a bright light on this problem.”
To evaluate the impact of the Civic Education Initiative, Jung and her co-author Maithreyi Gopalan used nationally representative data from the federal Current Population Survey, which provides self-reported voting behaviors of 18- to 24-year-old U.S. citizens.
They used a “difference in difference” analysis, which compared the voting patterns over time between students in those states that implemented the civics test, and those that did not. They found no significant differences in youth voting behaviors between those groups of states.
The civics education community is divided on the utility of these basic knowledge tests. Some, like Spataro, see them as a necessary baseline requirement—a way to ensure all students have foundational knowledge in the discipline that forms the basis for higher order learning.
But others argue that the test is a shallow measure of civic learning that’s disconnected from many of the ways that young people might actually engage in their communities.
“What research increasingly shows us is that it’s not just what students are learning in school, but the skills that they are developing and the ways that they have opportunities to engage with that information,” said Siegel-Stechler, of CIRCLE.
“It’s not that knowledge isn’t important, but in many ways, being able to evaluate that information, and make good choices as a result of it, is what’s really important,” she said.
Still, Siegel-Stechler and Spataro agree on one thing: Neither would have expected a high school civics graduation test requirement to move the needle on youth voting.
“I’m not at all surprised,” said Siegel-Stechler, of the results of the Penn State study.
While Spataro thinks that the test lays a foundation, it’s “unreasonable” to expect that the test alone would lead to increases in voter turnout, he said. Schools need a more robust civic ecosystem, encompassing strong curricula, trained teachers, and opportunities for extracurricular involvement, he said. The test is “just the basics,” Spataro said. “It’s kind of like learning the alphabet before you can learn to spell and read.”
The Civic Education Initiative’s primary target was civic knowledge, but the organization also listed ensuring that students “graduate with the tools they need” for civic engagement as a goal.
How can schools support young voters?
Researchers know a lot about what doesn’t improve voter turnout, said Gopalan, an assistant professor of education and public policy at Penn State. There’s value in schools providing more practical lessons, she said.
For increasing youth voting, specifically, a multi-pronged approach is necessary, said Siegel-Stechler.
“There are a lot of factors that influence whether or not a young person turns out to vote, and what we should be working on as a society is to put as many of those pieces in place that we can,” she said, referencing recommendations in CIRCLE’s Growing Voters report.
Civic experiences at school are important, but they’re not the only lever to pull. There are policy changes, too, that can make it easier for young people to get to the polls and exercise their rights, Siegel-Stechler said, such as same-day voter registration.
But voting isn’t the only type of civic engagement that schools should encourage, or that researchers should measure, Siegel-Stechler added.
Volunteering, going to town meetings, talking to peers about issues that are important to them—those are all ways to get involved in political and community life, she said.
“Generally, voting is an important component of civic engagement, but it is not the only thing,” Siegel-Stechler said. “And it’s not, for a lot of young people, the primary opportunity that they see in their own lives.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2023 edition of Education Week as This Popular High School Civics Requirement Doesn’t Boost Voting Habits