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State Laws, Standards, and Requirements for K-12 Civics

Our new fact sheet explores the current state of civic education standards and its implications for young Americans' civic knowledge

With funding from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, CIRCLE has analyzed the standards, course requirements, and mandatory assessments relevant to civic education in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. This is the first such scan in 5 years. The full analysis is summarized in our new fact sheet entitled State Civic Education Requirements, and an accompanying spreadsheet provides details on each state.

Some of the highlights:

  • 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
  • Forty  states require at least one course in American government or civics1
  • 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.
  • Social studies assessments have shifted from a combination of multiple-choice and performance tasks to almost exclusively multiple-choice exams since 2000.

The previous scan of state standards, requirements and laws relating to civic education was conducted more than five years ago.  In the past decade, education policy has changed rapidly, due, in part, to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), Race to the Top, and other federal policies. In 2008, CIRCLE found little change in the amount of time devoted to social studies, but more recent research suggests that states have shifted educational resources away from social studies toward subjects that are included on state-wide assessments. The pendulum may be swinging back as several states are now reforming their requirements for civic education.

Is Contemporary History Being Taught In Schools?

One theme that we found in 35 states’ social studies standards concerns “contemporary US History.” Although that theme is common, states differ in how, or whether, they define “contemporary.” Twenty-six states do not specify what “contemporary” means in the standards themselves. Some define it as the “1980’s until present.” A few of the standards focus on connecting historical and present-day issues.

In our 2006 survey, young adult Americans recalled that historical issues had been much more prominent in their social studies courses than current events. Forty-one percent of young Americans recalled “the Constitution or the U.S. system of government and how it works” was the main theme they had studied in civics courses. The other themes that they recalled, in descending order, were “wars and military battles” (32 percent), “great American heroes and the virtues of the American form of government” (26 percent), and tied for fourth place were “problems facing the country today” (11 percent) and “racism and other forms of injustice in the American system” (11 percent).

There is no consensus about what mix of history and current events is best, but the typical curriculum seems to have shifted in favor of history. In 1948-9, 41.5% of American high school students took “Problems of Democracy,” a course that typically involved reading and debating stories from the daily newspaper. By the early 1970s, that proportion was down to 8.9%, and the course is now very rare (Niemi & Smith 2001). On the other hand, American history courses remain almost universal requirements.

Some evidence suggests that young people who do not continue on to college (and whose civic engagement is typically very low) are alienated by curricula that emphasize history to the exclusion of current events and issues.  Out-of-school youth in our research said that civic education was engaging and memorable when it seemed relevant to civic experiences in their daily lives or current issues and problems. Many respondents felt detached from what they were learning in their civics courses – and most of their time was spent reading textbooks and doing worksheets. Of course, history can be taught in engaging ways, but research also suggests that moderated discussions of contemporary issues and interactive activities promote active citizenship later in life.

Redefining Civic Knowledge?

To participate in civic life, young people need skills and knowledge. Since the 1970s, changes in the political environment and the ways we communicate and problem-solve together (especially using technology) have added new forms of knowledge and skills that are useful for effective participation. CIRCLE’s 2010 report entitled “Civic Skills and Federal Policy” lists some of the skills that seem most important today. Young people learn such skills and knowledge from various people and institutions, including their families, community-based organizations, and schools and colleges institutions.

K-12 institutions have the largest reach, in terms of the number of youth they can impact. Civic education can occur in many subjects, but social studies courses are particularly valuable opportunities to learn civic knowledge and skills. Our scan of civic and social studies standards and requirements shows that, in many states, the standards include advanced civic skills that are directly relevant to participation in politics and community affairs. For instance, 42 states have standards that we coded as “real-world application” of civic knowledge, and 41 have standards that we coded as “civic skills, such as communication, deliberation, or collective decision-making.”

However, these standards are not connected to tests or other assessments. Even the relatively few states that require civics tests use multiple-choice exams that cannot assess advanced skills. Likewise, most national surveys (e.g., the Census Current Population Survey, or the National Conference on Citizenship’s Civic Health Index Survey) assess civic knowledge using concrete factual items like these:

  • Who decides whether a law is constitutional?
  • What percent of the house and senate is necessary to override a veto?
  • Under the US Constitution, the power to tax belongs to the _____?

Although the information tested above is important, we’ve found from previous research that low-income, urban youth learn different ideas and skills from daily experience in their own communities. In some instances, young people derive lessons from daily experience that contrast with the messages taught in social studies and civics class. They may be taught, for example, that all citizens are equal under the law, yet experience a very different reality.

Because youth come to politics with diverse experiences, they may not all need the same skills and knowledge to participate effectively. But in designing curricula, requirements, standards, surveys, and tests, it is important to ask what skills and knowledge they really need.

Are Crucial Civic Skills Being Taught to Youth?

An effective civic actor needs civic skills. That is evident every election season, when citizens must navigate state voting laws, assess various policies and positions,  and make important choices about whom and what to support. And it’s at this time of the year that the conversation about candidates, policies and issues reaches its height. Citizens need skills to articulate their views and listen to others.

Our fact sheet about state civic education-related laws and standards finds that many states mention civic skills:

  • 41 states reference developing skills in their state standards, and
  • 20 states have standards for service-learning, which, because it involves working on real world problems,  can teach skills.

However, only eight states assess students’ learning in Civics or American Government; and only two states currently require students to pass a Civics or American Government assessment to graduate from high school. Further, those tests are multiple-choice exams that do not assess advanced civic skills, but rather factual knowledge.

Moreover, other CIRCLE research has shown that opportunities for youth to build civic skills are unequal. We coordinated a process to identify important skills and suggest favorable federal policies for building skills. After that report was released, Congress actually eliminated Learn & Serve America, a program that had helped students develop civic skills by participating in service-learning..

While many states mention skills in their civic education-related standards, they emphasize  historical information more than skills, and few states assess skills. If we expect Americans to participate, then these skills must be taught.

[1] The default requirement in Indiana is four years of social studies, but students may opt out and get a “general diploma” that only requires two years.