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Putting civics to the test: The impact of state-level civics assessments on civic knowledge

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Putting Civics to the Test: The Impact of State-Level Civics Assessments on Civic Knowledge


By David E. Campbell
(September 17, 2014)

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Executive Summary

In spite of the national debate over the efficacy of state-level exams, whether assessments in civics enhance democratic education remains largely unexamined. This paper uses a large 2012 national survey of 18–24-year-olds to examine the potential effect of civics assessments on civic outcomes. In doing so, it strives to answer three questions:

1. Do civics assessments matter?

Yes, but only assessments that are required for high school graduation (that is, “consequential civics assessments”).

2. For what outcomes do civics assessments matter?

Consequential civics assessments lead to greater civic knowledge but do not foster greater voter participation. Nor do they influence partisan or ideological leanings.

3. For whom do civics assessments matter most?

Consequential civics assessments lead to the greatest gains in civic knowledge among African American, Hispanic, and immigrant youth—especially Hispanic immigrants. These assessments, however, do not have a systematic effect on the methods used for teaching civics. Future research should therefore focus on how students, teachers, and administrators adapt to the presence of consequential assessments in civic education.

Amidst the cut and thrust of debate over American education policy, the civic dimension of our public education system often gets short shrift. The relative inattention to civic education is both lamentable and ironic given that civic education—that is, preparation for democratic citizenship—was originally a primary objective of the public school system.

This inattention means that civic education is often relegated to the sidelines in the discussion of concrete initiatives within education policy, even though all states have developed standards for civics (or related subjects, like social studies) and 40 states require students to complete at least one civics course.[1] Accountability, and assessment specifically, figure among the most contentious issues within education policy, yet civics has largely been left out of the discussion.

The debate over assessment centers on fundamental questions such as how students should be assessed, particularly at the state level, and whether assessment results in accountability and thus higher academic performance. Since the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)—and in some states, since well before that—students have taken statewide standardized exams designed to ensure their competence in key subjects. In most states, civics is not included within the statewide testing regimen, and the general trend has been for states to drop civics assessments.[2] In particular, NCLB does not include civics among the subjects in which students must be tested. As a result, little is known about whether statewide assessments in civics make any difference.

For other subjects, notably math and reading, some evidence suggests that statewide assessments—typically, exams—boost student performance.[3] However, this finding remains contentious, as some studies conclude that there are deleterious consequences of statewide assessment and accountability standards.[4] Nonetheless, proponents of assessment argue that well-designed accountability measures spur students, teachers, and administrators alike to adopt the best practices to boost students’ academic performance.

If the assessments are indeed designed well, then students—and, relatedly, their teachers and administrators—can be appropriately evaluated by the exams. By this logic, teacher evaluation would not require monitoring teachers’ specific pedagogical practices but instead only the outcomes of their students’ performance. That is, the focus would be on the ends and not the means, leaving teachers to determine the optimal methods to achieve the objective of their students’ strong performance on assessments.

Similarly, administrators are left to decide which instructors should be teaching civics. Obviously, in practice there are many factors outside of the classroom that affect students’ performance, which is one reason why assessment is a controversial topic. Should teachers only be evaluated based on changes in their students’ performance (that is, value-added analysis)? Should an assessment take into account possible confounding factors, such as the socioeconomic status of the students? What does a fair and informative assessment entail?

While contentious, the debate over assessments has the virtue of being grounded in empirical analysis. A huge volume of data exists on those subjects—primarily math and reading—that has been subjected to testing. In other words, there can be a debate because there is something to debate.