America Gets an F in Civics Education

May 23, 2011

Earlier this month, the National Assessment Governing Board released its U.S. report card on civics, which evaluates fourth, eighth, and 12th graders’ knowledge of civics. The results were very disheartening. Of students in the 12th grade — who are about to turn voting age — only 64 percent tested at or above basic knowledge of civics, and only 24 percent tested at or above the proficient level.

By Bill Koplitz (This image is from the FEMA Photo Library.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThe report finds that scores for fourth grade female students have increased by five points since 2006, an overall 7-point gain over male students. These gains decrease by the time students reach the 12th grade, when they’re about to enter into the electorate.

AAUW Achievement Award Winner and retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was present via satellite at the event when the results were announced. She said, “We cannot afford to continue to neglect the preparation of future generations for active and informed citizenship.” O’Connor has created a program to help foster civic knowledge in our nation’s youth, iCivics, which provides an interactive forum for children to learn more about the democratic process.

But civics education extends well beyond the classroom. Ninety-seven percent of the 12th grade students who were surveyed said that they have had some kind of civics class in high school. But the dreary test results prove that we need to not only focus more on civics education in our schools but that the education must also extend beyond the classroom. Communities and families should play a bigger role in encouraging students to participate in community-based youth leadership commissions, intern with local organizations or politicians, volunteer with local political efforts, write for the school newspaper, or even submit a letter to the editor or a guest post for a blog.

Feminist activist and National Conference for College Women Student Leaders speaker Shelby Knox serves as a testament to the power of this kind of political engagement. She participated in her county’s youth commission, as was documented in the film The Education of Shelby Knox. Knox is an example of a young woman who found her political voice as a teenager, and her political activism has led to a career in feminist and youth organizing.

O’Connor also highlighted other benefits to a quality civic education, saying that it will “ensure that our democracy has a vibrant and robust future. It gives students skills in critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and a common understanding of our institutions and our history. It is also the best antidote for cynicism to help people understand that they are a part of something larger than themselves and that they can make a difference.”

This post was written by Leadership Programs Intern Donnae Wahl.

Avatar By:   |   May 23, 2011


  1. This is a great sign of improvement on the statistics on Civics Education among females.

  2. Avatar Barbara Mullin says:

    As part of the Sussex County League of Women Voter’s
    Observer Corp in Delaware at last Tuesday’s County Council meeting,
    I observed three public school teachers and two classroom student class populations attending to receive a plaque for their participation in Caroling at the town square and collecting food and money for the local food banks.
    Unfortunately, the Civics lesson
    in observing County Council left something to be desired
    when the council members stood, as usual, to recite the
    Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of the meeting.
    So much for separation of church and state and respect
    for diversity Americans United for Separation of Church and
    State is aware.
    Several (most) council members don’t believe in church/state

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