Why Civics Exams Fail, and What Should Be Done Instead

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Seeking to improve and inform about opportunities for students. Big supporter of stationery, animated movies, and Chow Chows.

In January, the South Dakota legislature introduced a bill that would have required students to pass a civics test to graduate. Passing would mean answering at least 35 out of 50 questions from the USCIS Naturalization Test correctly. The goal was for students to “demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of the history, principles, and form of the United States government.” Two months later, the bill failed.

Demonstrating “knowledge and understanding” is not the same as rote memorization. The bill’s failure confirms a fundamental truth: civics cannot be summed up in a simple multiple-choice exam.

But around the country, states have slowly been adopting laws to require similar tests. The Joe Foss Institute launched the Civics Education Initiative in 2014, pushing for schools to require passing the U.S. citizenship test to graduate. Arizona was the first state to require this, and several states have followed suit.

The issue at hand is believing that a civics test is an adequate response to civic disengagement in teens. Knowing who wrote the Federalist Papers does not give students the tools to participate in the political process or to give back to their communities. Moreover, implementing this kind of ineffective exam is a diversionary tactic. It promotes “teaching to the test” instead of deepening students’ understanding of democracy.

And while it’s true that the majority of Americans can’t pass the citizenship test, this is more telling of the state of student engagement in social studies classes than it is a reason to implement a civics test. So what should be done instead?

States should promote inquiry- and action-based civic learning by adopting the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)’s College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards.

The framework looks daunting at first, but it boils down to two main ideas. First, the focus should be directed towards relevant student-led discussions. Teachers shouldn’t advocate for one point of view over another, but they should open up the conversation from a monologue to a dialogue. It’s much easier for students to tune in and retain information when their voice is part of the lesson.

Teachers should also ask compelling questions to guide these discussions. One example the NCSS gives is “Was the American Revolution revolutionary?” This type of open-ended question is intriguing and requires critical thinking instead of absentminded fact regurgitation.

Second, students should be encouraged to participate in their communities. This could start in the classroom by practicing democratic decision-making procedures. It can expand to giving students the tools to begin organizations at school, conduct community-based research, or join local and national opportunities to be directly involved with the government. Education policy experts note that these participatory elements are crucial to a high-quality civics education.

The C3 Framework creates a win-win scenario: schools would still have enough leeway to choose how they want to adopt these goals, and students would be significantly more prepared to become active civic participants.

Ultimately, this solution accomplishes what a civics exam doesn’t: it equips the next generation of decision-makers and community leaders with the tools they need to thrive.