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More than a Test: Truly Committing to Civic Education

Merely having students pass the U.S. citizenship test ignores the deeper civic learning that young people need to be prepared for democracy.

In January, Arizona became the first state in the nation to require students to pass the U.S. citizenship exam before graduating high school—North Dakota became the second state a few weeks later. Since then, there has been a lively debate on the pros and cons of the legislation. CIRCLE has long studied what makes for strong civic education, and we believe that these new policies are not just insufficient, but could actually be counterproductive to educating our young people to be knowledgeable and engaged citizens.

It is encouraging that people are talking about civic education, which is a vital to creating stronger communities and a healthier democracy. However, it is an oft-repeated but inaccurate claim that civics has disappeared from American education. As we have previously shown, nearly every state has some kind of civics requirement: whether a mandatory course, a formal service learning project, or a standardized test. This does not mean that the amount or quality of civics teaching is remotely adequate, but students experience much more civics than they would need to pass a short factual survey whose correct answers are displayed on a public website.

Although Arizona and North Dakota are the first states to make passing the U.S. citizenship exam a separate requirement for high school graduation, several states have high-stakes tests in social studies that can affect their students’ chances of being promoted to the next grade or graduating from high school. These tests are generally much more ambitious than the citizenship exam. For example, Ohio students must pass the Ohio Graduation Tests to graduate, and the covered subjects include social studies. In Florida, students’ promotion to 8th grade can be affected by their scores on the 7th grade civics test.

High-stakes exams may appear to indicate a strong commitment to civic education. But the existing state tests of concrete factual knowledge do not seem to encourage schools to teach, or students to learn, the advanced knowledge and skills needed to informed and engaged citizens. Excellent civic education involves more than the rote memorization of facts about the history and structure of our democracy; it requires engaging with that democracy by acquiring and applying skills like deliberation, critical thinking, and media literacy. Assessments, test-based or otherwise, should explicitly value and evaluate those competencies.

The problem of civic education in America is one of quality and depth. Mandating the U.S. citizenship exam does nothing to address that problem, and may exacerbate it. Students, teachers, and administrators faced with a very simple but high stakes test may neglect deeper and more meaningful civic skills; the test may actually reduce the amount of time and attention devoted to civics and social studies.