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High School Civics Linked to Voting, Political Knowledge

Our analysis finds that civic education improves engagement and does not lead to partisanship or influence support for a candidate.

Two new CIRCLE fact sheets explore the state of civic education and young people's knowledge about politics, its effect on electoral engagement, and the role of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Civics assessment in measuring young people's understanding of politics and civic life.

Our main analysis is based on a large, national survey of young Americans released today which shows that most young adults who voted in 2012 could choose an issue that was important to them and knew where the candidates stood on at least one (of two) relevant policies. Young Obama and Romney voters had strikingly similar levels of political knowledge. But the survey reveals widespread misinformation on some issues, and young people who did not vote scored poorly on the knowledge questions.

A complementary analysis explores what the NAEP really measures and how we should interpret students' performance on this test. 

CIRCLE’s poll of 4,483 young Americans, ages 18-24, was conducted from the day after the election until December 21. As part of the poll, respondents were asked to choose one issue of particular interest to them. They were then asked to express their own opinion on this issue and to answer two factual questions about where President Obama and Governor Romney stood. The survey shows a clear relationship between respondents’ high school civics education experiences and their knowledge of campaign issues and political participation in the 2012 presidential election. However, taking high school civics had little or no relationship with party registration or young adults’ choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Major findings include:

  • On some topics, young people were informed. More than three in four young voters could correctly answer at least one factual question about the candidates’ position on a campaign issue that they had chosen as important. And on questions about the structure of the US government, they performed as well or better than older adults who have been asked similar questions in other polls.
  • On other topics, most young people were misinformed. For instance, a majority (51.2%) believed that the federal government spends more on foreign aid than on Social Security, when in fact Social Security costs about 20 times more. But again, older adults have also been found to be widely misinformed on the same topics.
  • About one quarter of young voters were poorly informed about the campaign’s issues, and young people who did not vote were generally uninformed.
  • Young people who recalled high-quality civic education experiences in school were more likely to vote, to form political opinions, to know campaign issues, and to know general facts about the US political system. That does not mean that civics causes higher turnout and more knowledge, because students who experience better civics may also have other advantages in their schools and communities. But the correlations are very strong and at least demonstrate that active and informed citizens tend to be people who had good civic education.

The survey released today found that 87.8% of respondents recalled taking some kind of civics course in high school.  Of those who took some kind of civics course, almost all (96.9%) learned at least some information about voting. Of those who recalled studying voting during high school, 60.2% turned out to vote in 2012–as opposed to only 43% of those who recalled no civic education course.  The more that respondents’ teachers had taught them about voting, the more likely they were to vote in 2012.

The survey not only captured the respondents’ recollections of whether they had taken a course in civics education, but also the quality of their educational experiences in civics. High-quality experiences included projects in the community or teachers’ encouraging discussion of current events, among others. A little over one quarter of respondents said they had not taken civics at all or recalled a maximum of one high-quality experience. Another 31.5% remembered two or three high-quality experiences. The remaining 43.5% could remember four or five relevant civics experience. That last group had much more knowledge and was much more likely to vote last November.

Understanding the NAEP Civics Assessment

Only eight states currently test their students on American government or civics (usually as part of a much broader social studies test), and so relatively little is known about young people’s civic knowledge, skills, behaviors, and values. Given the paucity of state data, the NAEP in Civics receives predominant attention. The fact that only about one quarter of students typically reach the “proficient” level on the NAEP Civics assessment is probably cited more than any other statistic about civic education, and it is often used to support proposals for adding civics requirements.

Indeed, civic education deserves increased attention, and students’ knowledge may be problematic, but these interpretations of the NAEP are based on misunderstandings. Overall proficiency scores on the NAEP Civics assessment do not tell us objectively how well students perform, but the assessment is highly informative if interpreted correctly. The results can be used to learn: which students perform better and worse than the norm for their grade, how students’ knowledge has changed over time, which educational practices are related to higher scores, and how well students understand various specific topics.