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New CIRCLE research confirms: civic education lacking in most states

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

“CIRCLE’s fact sheet on state civic education requirements is a telling reminder of the considerable gap between states’ goals and their execution. Virtually all states have established standards that should be part of any serious civics curriculum, but only eight require an assessment of civics or American government. The results are plain to see: National tests of civics knowledge indicate that schools are failing to impart basic information to students – and future voters – about their country’s history and how its government works. To be sure, imparting content knowledge is just one part of an effective civic education. However, one could ask what is the likelihood of students developing the civic values, behaviors, and skills they need without the solid foundation of knowledge on which these values and habits securely rest?” — Gary Schmitt and Cheryl Miller, director and program manager, respectively, of the AEI Program on American Citizenship

The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) has just released a report that analyzes the standards, course requirements, and mandatory assessments relevant to civic education in all 50 states.

The results are not encouraging, if unsurprising:

  • All states have standards for social studies, a broad category that includes civics/government along with other disciplines such as history and geography. The civics theme of power, authority, and government is included in all 51 states’ social studies standards (including the District of Columbia’s). The theme of civic ideals and practices is found in every state’s standard except Missouri’s.
  • Thirty-nine  states require at least one course in American government or civics.
  • In the 2012-13 school year, 21 states require a state-designed social studies test. This is a similar number as in 2006 but a dramatic reduction compared to 2001, when 34 states conducted regular assessments on social studies subjects.. Two states, Maryland and Florida, have recently instituted new social studies assessments, not yet required this year.
  • Just nine states require students to pass a social studies test in order to graduate from high school: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. Georgia’s assessment will be phased out but Maryland and Florida will add high-stakes tests.
  • Eight states have statewide, standardized tests specifically in civics/American government: California, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.  Of those, Ohio and Virginia are the only ones that require students to pass that test to graduate from high school.

You can view the full fact sheet here, and download a detailed spreadsheet of the each state’s requirements here.

Over at Education Week, Nora Fleming reports:

According to Peter Levine, executive director of CIRCLE, the center attributes the decline in assessments in civics, and even social studies more generally, to a lack of mandated testing in the subjects under No Child Left Behind, passed in 2001. That, combined with federal grant programs like Race to the Top geared to other courses, and no requirement to measure knowledge of subjects like history, government, current events, and geography, most states have let these requirements and assessments slacken, he said.

“The standards in most states include some high aspirations, 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,” Levine said. “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.”

Related: Check out our 2010 report, “High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do.”

AEI