Testing is Not the Answer

Civics education is in the news, which, despite the sexiness that the subject connotes at Generation Citizen, does not happen very often. Specifically, led by Arizona, several states throughout the country are considering legislation that would make passing the citizenship test a requirement to graduate from high school. 

We care about young people becoming active citizens, so it might seem like we would be at the forefront, pushing these efforts forward. But we are not in favor of these efforts, and in fact, think they could hurt our efforts to promote action civics in the classroom.

Proponents to the legislation reference the fact that Americans, on aggregate, know little about our government, with a study last year conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center citing that a third of Americans could not name one branch of government. They also say that this would bring more attention to the lack of civics education occurring in our schools at a time when our democracy is not functioning well, necessitating more youth involvement.

I agree with these problem statements – we do know too little about our government, and civics does need to be a much higher priority. But the citizenship test is not the right solution, for a few core reasons: 

1. We don’t need more knowledge-based tests: There’s a healthy debate occurring in this country about the importance that our education system currently places on standardized tests, and whether they should be about accountability or iterative knowledge for teachers. Regardless of where this debate lands, there are very few, if any, teachers in this country who are advocating for even more tests.

Additionally, the knowledge-based nature of this test, rather than measuring civic skills, leads itself to educators teaching explicitly to the questions, rather than the nuanced nature of our democratic problems. The citizenship test is static (students would need to answer 60 out of 100 questions correct in Arizona) so there’s a relatively high possibility that, years later, students would retain this knowledge to the same extent that you and I remember the elements on the Periodic Table.

2. Behavior and Skills Matter: Yes, Americans need to know more about our government. But the core problem is not knowledge – it is behavior. We are participating at lower levels, have increasing distrust in government, and do not see politics as the way to make change.  The antidote to this is to teach skills and spur behavior, not just to provide knowledge.

About a year ago, I was teaching a class at Brown and asked a class of 30 students who could name both Rhode Island senators. Only 2 students could successfully do so. When I asked how many had voted in the last election, a similar result came across. The problem in this case was that the students had not been motivated to participate, and did not see their vote as necessary. This is hugely problematic. But knowing Rhode Island’s senator’s names would not have led to better civic behavior – the participation would have led to the knowledge. This causation is hugely important – if we teach young people to want to participate in politics, the knowledge will come (we implicitly vouch for this in GC’s curriculum, by valuing skills and behavior over knowledge).

3. Trade-Offs Exist: One line of thinking is that any energy towards civics in schools is a good thing. But this does civics education a disservice. No one would argue that a math or literacy test, regardless of its merits, would uniformly be a positive. Because we value those subjects, educators would want to ensure that the assessments aligned with best practices in the field.

We work with a number of 12th grade classes, especially in New York City. If this law passed, the teachers we worked with would become increasingly concerned with teaching to the citizenship test, rather than our action civics curriculum. There is not unlimited time in the school day, especially for civics, and so spending time on a knowledge based test that does not serve as an effective predictor of behavior is not a positive, even if it is trying to address the right problem.

These are just a few reasons that Generation Citizen will not support these efforts. As Ted McConnell, Executive Director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools says, “Right problem, wrong solution.”

In the coming months, we do look forward to espousing a number of pro-active policy solutions that we feel will spur youth civic engagement, including lowering the voting age in local elections. It is great that civics is in the limelight. But let’s make sure we have the right solutions at our disposal.


– Scott Warren, Co-Founder & Executive Director

Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.

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