Voices in Education

Education for a Civil Society
Two myths arise in almost all discussions of civic education: “Kids today don’t know any civics,” and “We don’t teach civics nowadays.” As I argue in my chapter in Making Civics Count, civic education does need reform, but we must first get the facts straight.

First, students do study civics. As we will show in a recent study funded by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr., Foundation, 41 states require at least one course in civics or American government for high school graduation. Although not required, such courses are still very common in the remaining states, as shown by the fact that 97 percent of high school seniors reported in 2011 that they had taken a civics class.

But what did they learn? The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) is our best measure of American students’ knowledge. Every three years, when new NAEP Civics results are released, they provoke head-shaking and finger-wagging. The 2010 results generated a story in The New York Times titled “Failing Grades on Civics Exam Called a ‘Crisis.’”

Only 24 percent of 12th graders were deemed proficient in 2010, and a similar number reached proficiency in 4th and 8th grade. Reporters typically cited these statistics along with specific questions on which students performed poorly. For instance, the Times story began, “Fewer than half of American eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights.”

It is important to understand how NAEP proficiency scores are constructed. The current NAEP Civics Framework was developed in 1998, and the test writers were asked to develop a mix of questions that would produce roughly the scores we actually saw that year. Each subsequent NAEP Civics Assessment has been carefully designed to be no more or less difficult than the first one. Because the test is meant to find that about one quarter of students are “proficient,” the cutoff for proficiency is essentially arbitrary. The main purpose of the NAEP is not to show how many students know enough, but to compare scores over time. By that standard, civics proficiency has risen significantly at the 4th grade level and remained unchanged at the 8th and 12th grade levels—hardly evidence of a “crisis.”

But we can still ask whether most students know important facts and concepts. The answer depends, of course, on the topic. In 2010, 92 percent of 4th graders could name the current US president, and 84 percent of 12th graders could understand a voter registration document. But only 16 percent of 8th graders understood the reason why states have a role in the Constitutional amendment process: to promote the principle of federalism.

On some items the mean scores were surprisingly low—the New York Times picked a few to cite—but on other items students did surprisingly well. For instance, 74 percent of 12th graders could correctly interpret a quotation from the majority opinion of Schenck v United States (1919). Having examined the full bank of questions and responses, I see no evidence of a crisis in the kinds of knowledge that the NAEP assesses.

Those outcomes are, however, very limited. Like other standardized tests in civics, the NAEP emphasizes individual students’ understanding of the formal structure of the United States government. The NAEP does not measure students’ ability to participate in voluntary groups, to work collectively to define and address problems, or to discuss controversial issues civilly. In my chapter of Making Civics Count, I argue that these are the aspects of citizenship that are actually in decline.

We must do better at preparing students to participate in civil society. Lamenting their civics test scores and demanding that they study civics—when they already do so—will not get us where we need to go.

About the Author: Peter Levine is the director of The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) and a contributor to Making Civics Count: Citizenship Education for a New Generation
edited by David E. Campbell, Meira Levinson, and Frederick M. Hess (Harvard Education Press, 2012).