In Standardized Testing Era, Civic Education Getting Left Behind

Although 39 states require at least one course in American government or civics, only nine require students to pass a social studies test in order to graduate from high school, according to a new study from Tufts University.

CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts, recently analyzed the standards and course requirements surrounding civic education in every state and the District of Columbia. They last surveyed civic education requirements five years ago.

In the current school year, 21 states require a statewide social studies test. This number is similar to 2006, but it has dramatically decreased compared to 2001, when 34 states conducted regular assessments on social studies subjects.

“Social studies courses such as history, civics, and economics provide students with the necessary civic skills and knowledge to be effective 21st century citizens,” the report states. “However, since the passage of No Child Left Behind, many states have shifted focus away from social studies and have dramatically reduced the number of social studies assessments.”

Only nine states require students to pass a social studies test to graduate from high school: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. Georgia will soon phase out its assessment, but Maryland and Florida will soon add high-stakes tests.

CIRCLE is a nonpartisan organization, and therefore doesn’t advocate any specific policy, but many teachers and other professionals are concerned that policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have pushed teachers into using standardized tests at the expense of their students.

“The results are plain to see,” said Gary Schmitt, director of the American Enterprise Institute Program on American Citizenship. “National tests of civics knowledge indicate that schools are failing to impart basic information to students — and future voters — about their country’s history and how its government works.”

The survey found the format of social studies tests has also changed over the years. Tests are mostly multiple-choice questions, and they primarily grade a student’s ability to memorize information as opposed to their ability to demonstrate civic skills. Assessments also focus more on the history and geography of the United States, and very few states assess students in world affairs or economics.

Illinois for example requires two years of social studies, which is fairly average compared to other states. The states with the most minimal requirements were Iowa and Colorado, which had no requirement and half a year of social studies required, respectively. Alabama, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Mississippi, New York and West Virginia all require four years of social studies.