Civics Education: A Solution Exists to Declining Test Scores
COMMENTARY

May 22, 2023by Hanna Skandera, President and CEO, Daniels Fund
Civics Education: A Solution Exists to Declining Test Scores

It was once assumed that American students could name the three branches of government or quote from the Bill of Rights. Today, that’s the exception rather than the rule.

This month the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed “the nation’s report card” for civics education. The results expose a decline in civics scores for the first time since the federal government began testing eighth graders in 1998.

Nearly 80% of students are not proficient in civics, prompting National Center for Education Statistics Commissioner Peggy Carr to remark: “These results are a national concern.” 

At the same time, youth interest in politics is soaring. According to a recent Tufts University survey, almost two-thirds of youth see politics as important to their personal identity. 

The 2022 election had the second highest voter turnout among voters under 30 in at least the past three decades. Not to mention the rise of social media and the 24-hour news cycle has increased the average American’s interest in politics. Yet just one in three Americans can pass the citizenship test and most young Americans believe our democracy is “in trouble” or “failing.”

How did we get here?

In part, school systems are focused on reading and math recovery after the COVID learning loss. America’s education system also prioritizes STEM: science, technology, engineering and math. It’s been a passion for Republican and Democratic presidential administrations alike — a rare uniting force in partisan times.

But without a strong civics core, our students are losing the ability to effectively engage in self-government.

Your typical eighth grader is unlikely to be familiar with French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. In the early 1830s, he visited the United States and years later published “Democracy in America.” This remarkable account provides an overview of our uniquely American institutions and community foundations. Impressed by America’s successful experiment in representative democracy, Tocqueville warned that if Americans abandoned their interest and involvement in self-government, democracy would degenerate into ineffectual mob rule no better than the cruel monarchies of his own experience. 

Tocqueville’s warning foreshadows today’s trend of intensely held political beliefs with a dangerous lack of civic knowledge. A survey of more than 37,000 college students across 159 campuses reveals that 66% of students believe “shouting down” speakers to stop certain speech is acceptable. Twenty-three percent find violence against speakers just as good. 

survey by the RAND Corporation found that more than half of America’s social studies teachers believe that basic civics concepts like the separation of powers or checks and balances were not essential for students to understand.

These basic building blocks aren’t the only things kids need to learn, but they are necessary for any semblance of civic knowledge and to constructively participate in our government. 

That’s why this surge in political interest among young people must be met with an equally spirited community effort to ensure that America’s next generation is better equipped for civic participation.

A partnership launched last year between the Daniels Fund and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation aims to do just that, by bringing civics education to middle school students in the form of Civics Bees.

Reaching this age group is intentional because it ensures these young minds build the foundation of knowledge before they start high school, step foot onto a college campus or enter a voting booth.

These events have already spread to nearly 50 cities in nine states with visions of becoming a National Civics Bee as prominent as the National Spelling Bee in its scope and influence.

Our approach is already paying dividends.

In April, the Denver Metro Chamber hosted a local competition for the National Civics Bee. The competition was open to middle schoolers throughout the region and after submitting essay applications, 20 finalists were selected. Enduring three rounds of civics-based questions, seventh grader Penny Kim walked away with the top prize — $2,000 and entry into Colorado’s state competition.

Here’s a sampling of the questions she aced:

  • Where would you find the following text in the U.S. Constitution? “Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” (Answer: The Bill of Rights.)
  • The right to a speedy and public trial is a right protected by the … (Answer: Sixth Amendment.)
  • What type of agreement is a free trade agreement between several parties? (Answer: Multilateral.)

Not an easy assignment, even to the most seasoned citizen. But for Penny Kim, she hopes it’s just one step in a lifelong civics journey. Her competition essay reflects her deep desire to be well-educated and the recognition that her education is at risk. 

Civics bees, a solution owned by local communities through the relevant Chamber of Commerce, are an important first step toward igniting a passion for civic knowledge. However, one event or a handful of nonprofits cannot be the lone catalysts.

Families play a pivotal role in a child’s education, but communities must also play an active part.

Collaboration among philanthropies, schools, elected officials, parents, educators and community leaders is essential if we’re to reprioritize civics education as a nation and protect our institutions and system of government.

America’s future depends on it.  


Hanna Skandera is the president and CEO of the Daniels Fund and former secretary of Public Education of New Mexico. Skandera can be reached on Twitter.

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