Constitutional Knowledge in U.S. High Schools
Existing research about what U.S. high school students know about the constitution is sparse. This page represents a compilation of data sources that approaches the information in different ways that we can use to approximate understanding of the issue. The first sources in the timeline is the Nation's Report Card, an annual assessment by the National Center for Education Statistics on the performance of U.S. K-12 students across multiple subject, spanning the years 1988 to 2010. The second source to which we may look is the Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics course and exam, offered each year to a small fraction of high performing students, with data for the years 2005-2020. Finally, we can look to the collection of legislative actions mandating increased civic education efforts and programs, notably those requiring high school students to pass a version of the USCIS Naturalization Civics exam to graduate from high school, beginning with Arizona's American Civics Act in 2015.
Public schools and public opinion
Most Americans assume that the public education system is not doing a good job
Why do young Americans compare so poorly with other generations in terms of civic knowledge, civic engagement, and civic attitudes? It's a hard question to answer definitively as there are very little data and what data exist are not promising. It is common to assume that U.S. high school students do not know anything about civics; yet, for the last 100 years, ever greater numbers of U.S. high school students are taking civics and government courses. Despite exposure to civics, U.S. high school students are graduating with less civics preparedness and motivation to take part in civic life than any prior generation.
insert PubOp graph about public education system.
NAEP and U.S. high schools civics performance
NAEP, The Nation's Report Card
In 1988, the National Center for Education Statistics began to "[measure] what U.S. students know and can do in various subjects." This project, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), sometimes referred to as "The Nation's Report Card" is the only assessment that comprehensively measures a representative selection of U.S. students in 4th, 8th and 12th grades. https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main1998/2001452.pdf
Each time the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) assesses a subject, an exam is given to a representative cross section of American students. In civics, the NAEP has tracked in 1988, 1998, 2006 and 2010. The last time NAEP tracked 12th grade civics was more than a decade ago in 2010, which means that while their information is broadly applicable, it is also woefully out of date. This means that while we can use it to draw some cross-sectional conclusions, we cannot use it to examine more recent student achievement in this area.
During the years that NAEP tracked high school civics data, it measured a host of informative measures. This chart examines the level of proficiency that HS students achieve compared to the educational attainment of their parents. It is worth noting that until students reach the “Basic Proficiency” level, there is no discussion of the nature and role of federalism in this assessment, meaning that significant portions of the testing population never engage with this essential aspect of American constitutional structure.
NAEP assessed 12th grade civics performance in 1998, 2006 and 2010, meaning the last assessment of high school civics knowledge is over a decade old, and does not reflect the tremendous changes in the social landscape that have occurred since then. Without a current, direct measure of civic knowledge outcomes for American high school students, we turn to other measures that allow us to examine indirectly what is taught and the effect it has: The AP U.S. Government and Politics course and exam, and state high school graduation policies that require US history and/or civics courses and assessments.
Advance Placement exams - what can they tell us?
AP U.S. Government and Politics
What is the AP Exam?
Advanced Placement (AP) courses are rigorous, mastery based courses that high school students can take for college credit. At the end of the course, student take a standardized exam "designed to measure how well[they have] mastered the content and skills" of the course. Most AP exams have an end-of-year paper-and-pencil exam. "[Advanced Placement] gives students the chance to tackle college-level
work while they are still in high school. … And through taking AP Exams, students can earn college credit and placement.”
Grading and Outcomes
The AP Exam is graded on five practices that demonstrate mastery of the
content in various ways. At various points in the exam, students must be able to
“describe, explain and compare political principles, institutions, processes,
policies and behaviors”; “describe and compare the reasoning, decisions and
opinions of required Supreme Court cases”; describe data and “explain the
relationship between the data and political principles, institutions, processes,
policies and behaviors”; and evaluate the validity of information sources based
on “evidence, perspective and reasoning.”
Outcomes and Understanding
Data obtained from AP indicates that although the number of U.S. high school students taking the U.S. Government and Politics exam has been growing fairly steadily, data available since 2005 shows the scores to be relatively flat. On average, about 50% of test takers pass, defined as scoring 3 or above. According to AP, the national average of scores over the last 15 years is 2.94, a failing grade. Still, this means that almost half of the students who take the exam pass, which is a significant percentage. Encouragingly, after a brief dip in 2017, scores began to climb more rapidly than at any time since the records begin, topping out at 57.5% in 2020.
While this increase in numbers is encouraging, we must remember that only 293,196 students participated in the last exam, representing only 7.9% of graduating seniors from the 2019-20 school year. More sobering still, is that the number who passed the exam represents only 4.6% of U.S. high school seniors. - graph for this sheet
From this we can conclude that the AP U.S. Government and Politics sequence provides a fairly robust offering in American governance, constitutionalism, civics, and federalism, but that it only touches a fraction of the students in this country. As a result of this, the data cannot accurately describe the extent of constitutional knowledge gained in American high schools.
Inclusion of Federalism
For our purposes at the Federalism Index Project, one major benefit to U.S. Government and Politics course is that it includes a relatively robust discussion of the origins, principles, and applications of federalism. This makes it one of the very few public educational resources in America today to devote meaningful class time to understanding this essential component of American constitutional structure.
State Civics Requirements for Graduation
After years of elections with dismal participation levels for the 18-24 age group, and years of fruitless, nationwide disagreements over civic issues, state legislatures began to take a more direct role in ensuring that future generations of U.S. students would reach adulthood with adequate preparation in civic knowledge and understanding. Examining the requirements each state places on U.S. high schools provides some insight into civics training their students must receive in order to graduate. Although as of 2015 "more than 90 percent of U.S. high school grads get a semester in civics and at least a year of U.S. history," the standards and results vary widely. States Requiring Civics Exams in High School Are on the Right Track | Knowledge Bank | US News
Arizona's "American Civics Act"
In 2015, Governor Ducey of Arizona signed the American
Civics Act, requiring all students to pass a basic civics exam
(in this case, the USCIS Civics exam with a score of 60) as a
requirement for graduation. Since that time, 17 other states
have adopted similar requirements.
[INSERT A MAP HIGHLIGHTING STATES THAT REQUIRE passing the assessment
Virtually every state currently has a law requiring some sort of civic education before a student graduates from high school. Some states already mandate that taking of an exam, but do not make it a part of the requirement for graduation. Other states mandate only a course in civics, or a significant representation of the information that would normally be in a civics course integrated into other courses.
Use graph of "state civics requirements" in Federalism Index > Constitutional Knowledge > K-12 Data >
With all this effort and teaching going on, it would be nice to measure how things are going, but as we mentioned before, NAEP stopped assessing grade 12 over a decade ago. In 2015,
"About 3 in 10 Americans say they can recall their middle or high school making a very serious effort, and another 3 in 10 say a somewhat serious effort to teach the Constitution. That amounts to 60% of the nation, confirming the data from multiple sources which conclude that the amount of civics instruction in America isn’t the issue. Unfortunately, the scholarship has not yet ventured a cogent hypothesis of what is the issue." (NCC KBH)
The results of all this effort are ... mixed. Of the various options in mandated civics education, 'consequential testing' has the highest returns, amounting to X increase in overall CK among graduates. Other options have significantly lower returns:
Considering the fanfare, effort and money sunk into these efforts, these returns are real, but also quite modest.
OUTCOMES – KNOWLEDGE, NOT HABITS OR CIVIC MINDSET
Taken together, the most accurate conclusion to be drawn from this data is that Americans are exposed to quite a lot of civics, history, government and politics education in high school, and that number is increasing over time, but that the results of that education are either tepid (only knowledge is increasing, without an increase in civic behavior or attitudes) or very tightly limited in the population they benefit.
c. Furthermore, as Carlson notes in his dissertation, much of past research and scholarship conflates the number of semesters of education with the desired outcomes of education, with little to support the claim. Indeed, as he points out, one of the major shortcomings in the scholarship is that they make claims about a very complex system based on metrics that are far too simple. (reference here)
d. These are excellent metrics by which to judge the knowledge, understanding and preparedness of students to become informed participants in American society. Unfortunately, the benefits only accrue to a relatively tiny percent of American high schoolers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 3.7 million young men and women graduated from U.S. high schools in the 2019-2020 school year, during which time only 293,196 students took the US Government and Politics exam, or about 8%. Those passing with a three or higher (168,196) only amount to 4.5%.
i. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1H22bzLdcEoHQxzBuZSref_6fEhmCRLodlkfGWdjt8ac/edit#gid=0 line graph for this one.
Hole in the data
While it is a straightforward exercise in Googling to find out which states have requirements for civic education, it is a more significant undertaking to find out what is being taught in all these new and improved programs. This undertaking could be a significant contribution to the literature if we could examine the content of curricula, especially those created or modified in response to recent legislation.
What are the results of state mandated civics testing?
find a link to the thing we can use
In measuring the effectiveness of civic education, the NAEP Civic Knowledge Index is included as part of the ‘nation’s report card’. These six questions are the primary instrument they use to rate overall political fluency, only 2 of which have any constitutional bearing, and none of which are currently being assessed at the high school level.
As far as you know, does the federal government spend more on social security or on foreign aid?
Would you say that one of the parties is more conservative than the other on the national level?
Which party is more conservative?
Do you happen to know which party had the most members in the House of Representatives in Washington before the [recent election]
How much of a majority is required for the Senate and House to override a presidential veto?
Which of the following best describes who is entitled to vote in federal elections? Residents, taxpayers, legal residents, or citizens? (2012)
I question the need to include this section.......
ii. THESE ONLY GRANT MODEST INCREASES IN CIVIC KNOWLEDGE THERE IS NO DISCERNABLE EFFECT ON ACTION OR MINDSET
1. “… [T]o the extent that there has been any research on state-level policies regarding civic education—including but not limited to assessments—these studies have concluded that these policies have no discernible effect on civic attitudes and behavior.
2. Civic engagement outcomes: Although some claim that there is visible correlation between education and civic activity and disposition, it is not clear or significant in the data. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1ucTYce987tqidNy7s9T6xsCy6ecsFmsLoO6lXfR6P00/edit#gid=64899748
There must be more to [civics education] than this
Some might think, "great, the kids know a lot, but is that knowledge translating into healthy civic habits and attitudes of the kind needed to sustain the republic?" To read more about this, follow this link -> (insert link here to "Habits and Attitudes" page)
a. In sum, our elementary and secondary schools are working hard, but it is hardly working. The effects on civic and constitutional knowledge is modest, and short lived without further education. Also, while the longstanding theory has been that education produces more desirable civic attitudes and behaviors, these claims cannot be substantiated based on existing data.
b. What we DO see in the data is that while elementary and secondary school provide some modest benefits, college up to the baccalaureate has the single largest increase in knowledge and attitude changes. So ON TO THE COLLEGE TAB.
3. RECOMMENDATIONS AND FURTHER RESEARCH
a. This website contains all 50 state civics education policies. Much to mine here. https://www.ecs.org/citizenship-education-policies/
Daniel J. Elazar, Exploring Federealism
Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan
David B. Walker, The Rebirth of Federalism
David Brian Robertson, Federalism and the Making of America