<< The Body Politic

Education for a civil society

Friday, October 12th, 2012

Writing at the Harvard Education Publishing blog, CIRCLE’s Peter Levine argues that the results of the recent CIRCLE study of each state’s civic education standards and course requirements–which we highlighted here–are not as dire as they may seem. (One such discouraging note from the study is that only eight states nationwide have statewide tests specifically in civics or American government.)

Levine explains:

But what did [students] 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. […]

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. […]

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.

As the Program’s Gary Schmitt and Cheryl Miller have pointed out, content knowledge of the formal structure of government is just one part of an effective civic education. But without that foundation, what is the likelihood of students developing the civic values, behaviors, and skills they need to take part in the kind of active–and smart–citizenship Levine encourages? You can view the civics NAEP questions and results here. As you browse through the questions and results, consider whether you wouldn’t feel just a bit more comfortable about the proper civic involvement of our next generation of citizens if more of them knew answers to these questions.

Read the rest of Levine’s post here.