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

Our earliest thinkers about education—men like Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, and Horace Mann—would have found our current obsession with preparing children for college or a career a trifle odd. Given the uncertain prospect of ordinary Americans running their own affairs, they were focused on an entirely different “C”—citizenship. Rush spoke of the need to “convert men into republican machines.” Education was key, he said, “if we expect them to perform their parts properly in the great machine of the government of the state.” Once the impetus, civic education is the forgotten mission of public schools, unloved and—as this report from the American Enterprise Institute correctly observes—increasingly untested. The absence of high-stakes assessments devalues the significance of civics as a subject and sets in motion the dull hum of apathy: no stakes, no urgency, no civic knowledge, no civic engagement. Might high-stakes civics exams help turn young people into informed and engaged voters? David Campbell, a professor of political science and director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame, looks at twenty-one states that have some kind of statewide civics assessments. Eleven of those administer a test that’s mandated for graduation or a final grade in a required civics course. These requirements do not appear to influence overall voter turnout or party identification among 18- to 24-year-olds, based on an analysis of voter turnout for the 2012 election. So civics tests don’t matter? Not so fast. A deeper analysis shows that testing appears to boost political knowledge among African American, Hispanic, and immigrant youth. The effect is strongest among Hispanic immigrants in particular, “which is in keeping with the historical role of the public school system to facilitate unum among America’s pluribus,” Campbell notes. Somewhere, Benjamin Rush smiles.

SOURCE: David E. Campbell, “Putting civics to the test: The impact of state-level civics assessments on civic knowledge,” American Enterprise Institute (September 2014).

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.