"[F]rom the time of the nations' founding, knowledge of government and civic life has been considered to be central to the endurance of the United States as a democratic republic" (NAEP 2018). As the final stage of preparation for entrance into American civic life, high school occupies an important place in the civic life of the nation. For this reason, there is much concern over what high school students know about the U.S. Constitution by the time they graduate. This page provides an overview of existing research, including reports from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), content from the AP United States History Exam, and data from various states about their civics requirements for graduation.
The first source 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. Following the NAEP, we present select data from the Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics course and exam, offered each year to a small fraction of high performing students (covering 2005-2020). Finally, we take a look at recent trends in legislative action mandating increased civic education efforts and programs, such as those requiring high school students to pass a version of the USCIS Naturalization Civics exam to graduate from high school.
NAEP, the Nation's Report Card
An accurate but outdated assessment of 12th grade civics proficiency
In 1988, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) 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
While the absence of a regulated canon of civic knowledge means that no single test can hope to cover all the information deemed vital to being a good citizen, the NAEP civics assessment tries to test the "civics knowledge and skills that are critical to the responsibilities of citizenship in the constitutional democracy of the United States." When the NCES assesses a subject, it tests a representative cross section of American students who are then sorted into four proficiency levels: "Below basic proficiency," "At or above basic proficiency," "At or above proficient," and "Advanced." NAEP assessed 12th grade civics in 1998, 2006 and most recently in 2010. The chart below shows the score breakdowns for each of the three NAEP assessments at each level of proficiency.
As for federalism, while the NAEP seeks to assess the skills and learning necessary for American citizenship, discussion of federalism is only included as an explicit topic of discussion in the 8th grade. Thus, conclusions about the extent of federalism understanding among high school students and graduates can only be extracted piecemeal.
Because the 8th graders tested in 2018 are now high school seniors, 2022 would have been the ideal time to assess not only the condition of this years' graduates, but also a offers us a chance to track improvements in the same population over time. Unfortunately, as of the date of publication, the 2022 NAEP is only planning to test grades 4, 8 and 9. NAEP last tested grade 12 civics in 2010. Lacking 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.
Advanced Placement Exams–What Can They Tell Us?
Powerful Preparation for a Small Population
What is Advanced Placement?
Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams offers high school students "the chance to tackle college-level work while they are still in high school." These rigorous, year-long courses require the students to master the material at a higher level than normal high school courses. At the end of the course, students take a standardized exam "designed to measure how well [they have] mastered the content and skills" of the course. Those who pass with a score of 3 or higher can receive college credit and placement. Each year, beginning in 2005, a report is published that compiles the results of all the students taking the various exams, broken down by the scores they receive.
The AP U.S. Government and Politics course is comprised of five units:
Foundations of American Democracy
Interactions Among Branches of Government
Civil Liberties and Civil Rights
American Political Ideologies and Beliefs
By the end of the course, and in preparation for the exam, students must be able to read and analyze important texts and foundational documents, and apply political concepts studied throughout the duration of the course.
Assessing the Results
Out of approximately 15 million U.S. high school students in 2021*, 454,204 students participated in the last exam— about 3 percent of the US high school population.
Of these, 214,516 passed (defined as scoring 3 or higher), representing 47.2% of this years test-takers. This is the lowest pass rate in the history of the test.
Since 2005, the national average score is 2.94—a failing grade.
While the AP U.S. Government and Politics course and exam provide a robust offering in civics education, these numbers indicate that the benefit only reaches a small fraction of students.
Inclusion of Federalism
For our purposes at the Federalism Index Project, one major benefit to the AP U.S. Government and Politics course is that it includes a relatively robust discussion of the origins, principles, and applications of federalism. In a sample syllabi provided on the AP website, two sections of Unit 1: Foundations of American Democracy are dedicated specifically to federalism: Section 1.8 Constitutional Interpretations of Federalism, and Section 1.9 Federalism in Action. Students are expected to critically analyze and examine questions like "How to do constitutional provisions related to federal and state powers impact the what government functions and policies are developed or enforced?" Content of this type 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
Legislatures Act to Require Greater Civic Education
After years of elections with disappointing turnout 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 to ensure that future generations of U.S. students would be prepared with adequate civic knowledge and understanding. Examining the requirements each state places on U.S. high schools provides some insight into civics education that students must receive in order to graduate. 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." What counts as "civics" and how results are measured vary widely, however. transition sentence to ACA paragraph.
The "American Civics Act",
In 2015, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed the "American Civics Act" (enabling legislation here), requiring all students to pass a basic civics exam as a requirement for graduation, making it the first state to adopt this further requirement. Seen by some as a model for how to improve civics at the state level, between 2015 and 2021 legislatures in 17 other states passed similar requirements, as can be seen in the interactive map below.
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. The following interactive map provides users with an easy way to quickly compare the language of various civics provisions across the 50 states.
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, engagement, and attitudes? For the last 100 years, greater numbers of U.S. high school students are taking civics and government courses. Yet, students are graduating with less civic preparedness and motivation to take part in civic life than any prior generation. Below is a graph representing American perception about the public school system in general. As the graph shows, a majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the public education system than are satisfied.
Outcomes–Knowledge, Not Habits or Civic Mindset
"[A]bout 3 in 10 (29%) Americans say they can recall their own [middle or high] school making a very serious effort, to teach the Constitution, and virtually the same number (30%) say their school made a somewhat serious effort." 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." (Knowing it by Heart, National Constitution Center and Public Agenda, p 39)
A Hole in the Data
While it is a straightforward exercise in Googling to find out which states have civic education requirements for high school graduation, we do not yet have a comprehensive picture of what is being taught in all these new or adjusted programs. Were such a collection to be created, it could be a significant contribution to the literature, allowing researchers to examine the content of curricula, especially those created or modified in response to recent legislation.
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