Is civics education sinking in?

Civic education for American youth may best occur in hands-on settings.

The National Assessment Governing Board released the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Civics Report Card at a press conference on May 4, 2011 at the National Archives in Washington D.C. The NAEP is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what American students know and can do in mathematics, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography and U.S. history.

Because NAEP assessments are administered uniformly using the same sets of test booklets across the nation, NAEP results serve as a common metric for all states and selected urban districts. The assessment stays essentially the same from year to year, with only carefully documented changes. This permits NAEP to provide a clear picture of student academic progress over time.

Data from the Civics Report Card revealed that only 27 percent of fourth-graders, 22 percent of eighth-graders and 24 percent of twelfth-graders scored proficient or higher in civics. Yet 33 percent of students attended schools that provided focused instruction in civics/government in fourth grade, 85 percent of students reported learning about civics in eighth grade and 97 percent of students reported studying civics or government in high school. If 97 percent of high school seniors have taken at least one course in civics in high school, why are only a quarter of them testing “proficient” in that subject?

Perhaps civics education is like learning to swim- you have to jump into the pool to truly understand how to do it. Despite reading and classroom instruction about government, the research is showing kids do not comprehend what is being taught. The solution may be for youth to participate in hands-on programs like 4-H Capitol Experience or other active civics programs in communities. One youth who attended the 2012 4-H Capitol Experience Program explained that “I’m interested in diplomacy and international affairs and this program helped with this.”

Do you think you could score high on the test? Test yourself by taking the civics assessment sample test in each of grades 4, 8, and 12.

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