<< The Body Politic

Testing civics

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

At Education Week, Nora Fleming explores the results of CIRCLE’s recent report examining the civics-related standards, assessments, and course requirements of all 50 states. (We covered the release of the report here.) After noting that the report found that very few states test civics in a meaningful way, Fleming considers what the next steps are for educators:

According to [CIRCLE’s Peter] 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. […]

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.

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.” […]

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. […]

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.”

Read Fleming’s entire article here–and be sure to pick up your copy of Making Civics Count, edited by Frederick Hess and with essays by both Peter Levine and Diana Hess, here. (Click here to learn more about the book and the day-long conference we hosted last October with its contributors.)