While the constant news coverage and interest in the presidential campaign might suggest Americans are well-versed in our country’s political process, data from the latest civics assessment of NAEP, colloquially known as the Nation’s Report Card, finds otherwise.
Indeed, the results show that there is not only a widespread lack of civic knowledge, but it is especially pronounced among minority students.
Administered on a rotating basis to fourth, eighth and 12th-grade students from participating schools, the data from the last Civics Assessment for 12th- graders show that 62% of African American students have a below basic knowledge of civics, and only 8% are at or above proficient. Meanwhile, 50% of Hispanic students possess below basic knowledge of civics, with 13% are at or above proficient.
What kind of knowledge gaps are we talking about?
Based on the sample questions in the NAEP assessment, most minority students in eighth-grade cannot name a right protected by the First Amendment, while most 12th-grade minority students cannot explain the meaning of a Supreme Court opinion. A mere 3% of 12th-graders nationally knew that the Supreme Court could use judicial review to preserve the rights of minorities.
Conversely, white students are performing better on each aspect of the civics exam, creating a civic engagement gap that is important for the nation to address. Democracy cannot be fully realized when citizens do not recognize how the government works and their own ability to make change. Research shows that civic learning corresponds to an increase in students’ civic participation and likelihood of voting. Building a civic identity in students will increase their sense of empowerment over their lives and the direction of their communities.
An unintended consequence of recent policies pushing for achievement and excellence in reading and math is that there is less time in the curriculum for other subjects. Science and social studies are often sidelined to increase time in English and math courses. Seventy-one percent of districts have cut back on time dedicated to subjects other than math and English— the largest cut coming from social studies. This has meant that civics education is not valued as much as courses that will prepare students for standardized testing. Civics education is vital for all students so that they are able to participate in democracy and engage the community in a meaningful way.
A great danger for the future of the United States is that we are educating a citizenry that does not understand how to have a voice in politics, how the government of the United States operates, or how to enact change and influence in their communities; particularly among poor and minority populations.
While it is important that students continue to have strong content knowledge in English and math, it must also make time in the curriculum for civics education. Civics courses will complement English and math courses as it requires students to read, think critically, write, and analyze charts, graphs and data. Further, students who feel empowered to change their communities and circumstances and receive instruction that is relevant to their lives become more engaged in school which could lead to higher performance in all subjects.
It is imperative that all students learn how to participate in a democracy and then create change in their communities in a civically responsible manner. A civics course that requires students to learn how the United States government works as well as how to be active, politically-engaged citizens must be included in public school curricula. -Breanna Higgins