Addressing Civics Understanding in Public Schools

Results from the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress show students made progress in civics knowledge at grade 4, but not at grades 8 and 12. Numerous groups are calling for states to bolster civic education programs in schools. Some advocates of civic education contend a decline in volunteer rates is connected to a lack of civic literacy taught in schools.

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Results from the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show students made progress in civics knowledge at grade 4, but not at grades 8 and 12.1

  • The test, given to 26,700 students in more than 1,470 schools compared civics knowledge with earlier civics assessments in 1998 and 2006.1
  • NAEP civics results are reported as average scores on a 0-300 scale. The average score in 2010 in fourth grade has shown a steady increase from 150 in 1998 to 154 in 2006 and 157 in 2010.
  • The scores in eighth grade, however, remained flat (150 in both 1998 and 2006 and 151 in 2010). Twelfth-grade scores actually declined from 151 in 2006 to 148 in 2010.1
  • The percentage of students who performed below the proficiency level was 73 percent of fourth-graders, 78 percent of eighth-graders and 76 percent of 12th-graders.1
  • The 2010 test showed Hispanic students made gains at all grade levels.1
Numerous groups are calling for states to bolster civic education programs in schools.
  • The National Center for Learning and Citizenship, a project of the Education Commission of the States, has made three broad recommendations for state policymakers:

    • Review state-level academic content standards to ensure they establish a sequence of learning in every grade. The standards also should develop civic skills and ability to participate in civic life, not just their knowledge.
    • Education leaders should choose between one of two main design options for delivering citizenship education: 1) a social studies-based approach, or 2) an interdisciplinary approach that integrates citizenship in multiple subjects.
    • Develop comprehensive citizenship education policies addressing leadership, standards and accountability, adequate in-school support and community involvement.2
  • At least two states have enacted legislation in 2011 to strengthen civic literacy in schools. Nebraska’s legislature enacted Legislative Bill 544, which Gov. Dave Heineman signed into law in April 2011. It expands the topics required to be covered in civics education in high school. Tennessee’s legislature passed House Bill 1625, which specifies each student must be taught the foundational instruments, mechanisms and values of American government.3
  • Only 27 states had accountability systems that included civics, citizenship education or social studies as of 2008. Nineteen states did not include civics, citizenship education or social studies on state assessments.4
  • Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor responded to the latest NAEP scores by helping launch a website at

    • The online program is designed to teach students civics and inspire them to be active participants in our democracy.5
    • “The scores reveal a very disturbing lack of basic knowledge of our system of government and how and why citizens must be engaged,” O’Connor said in a press release. “The report is a clarion call for action to restore the civic mission of our nation’s schools. We can and must do better in providing civic education to all of our nation’s school students.”6
Some advocates of civic education contend a decline in volunteer rates is connected to a lack of civic literacy taught in schools.
  • The volunteering rate among Americans of high school age hit its peak in 2005 at 33 percent, but declined to 28 percent in 2009.
  • The volunteer rate among 16- to 18-year-olds varied from a high of 51 percent in Utah to a low of 14 percent in Mississippi in 2009.6 (See chart)
  • Maryland is the only state that mandates community service/service learning as a graduation requirement. Seven other states—Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Wisconsin—permit community service or service-learning activities to be applied toward high school graduation requirements.8
1 U.S. Department of Education. “The Nation’s Report Card: Civics 2010.” 
2 Education Commission of the States. National Center for Learning and Citizenship. “Citizenship/Character Education--Civic Literacy.” Accessed at  on June 23, 2011.
3 Education Commission of the States. “Recent State Policies/Activities.” 
4 Education Commission of the States. “Citizenship Education – Inclusion in Assessment and Accountability Systems.” September 2010. 
5 iCivics
6 Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. “U.S. Students Score Low Marks in ‘The Nation’s Report Card’ for Civics.” May 4, 2011. 
7 The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement. “Volunteering/Community Service.” Graph 1: National Volunteering Rates by Age Group. 
8 National Service Learning Clearinghouse. “Policy: K-12 Service Learning.”