Old enough to vote — whatever that is

Civics knowledge has declined for 12th graders, many of whom are old enough to vote, but climbed for fourth graders, according to the new civics report card from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Eighth-grade scores stayed about the same.

Hispanic students made gains, though the racial/ethnic achievement gap remains large.

Students were asked both multiple-choice and constructed-response questions to measure their knowledge of civic life, politics and government and their understanding of citizens’ role in a democracy and the relationship of the U.S. to other nations.

At grade 4, students who scored at or above the Basic level (77 percent) were likely to identify a method used to select public office holders, students scoring at Proficient (27 percent) could identify a purpose of the U.S. Constitution, and students at Advanced (2 percent) could explain two ways a country could deal with a shared problem.

At grade 8, the 72 percent of students who performed at or above the Basic level were likely to identify a right protected by the First Amendment, the 22 percent who performed at or above the Proficient level could recognize a role performed by the Supreme Court, and the 1 percent who scored at the Advanced level could name two actions that citizens could take to encourage Congress to pass a law.

At grade 12, the 64 percent of students who performed at or above the Basic level were likely to interpret a political cartoon, the 24 percent scoring at or above Proficient could define “melting pot” and argue whether or not the phrase applied to the U.S., and the 4 percent scoring at Advanced could compare U.S. citizenship requirements to those of other countries.

Some of the questions appear to test reading and reasoning skills rather than civics knowledge.

Grade 4 sample question:

Cartoon strip. A boy named Calvin says to his father, "I think it's time we had a new dad around here. When does your term of office expire?" Dad responds, "Sorry, Calvin. I was appointed dad for life." Calvin screams, "For life?! What about a recall vote? What about impeachment?" Dad responds, "There are no provisions for either." Calvin asks, "Did you write this constitution yourself, or what?" Dad replies, "Well, your mom helped some, too."

Calvin and Hobbes © 1986 Watterson. Dist. By Universal Press Syndicate.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

The child in the cartoon strip above is a six-year-old boy named Calvin. What is the main point of the cartoon?

1. Constitutions have rules about how long someone can stay in office.
2. Families and governments are not run the same way.
3. The term of office for elected and appointed officials is different.
4. Calvin does not know how a constitutional government works.

Grade 8 sample question:

In the United States, which civil right belongs only to American citizens?

  1. Freedom of speech
  2. Freedom of assembly
  3. The right to legal representation if charged with a crime
  4. The right to vote in local, state, and national elections

Grade 12 sample question:

Political cartoon showing a man pulling the handle of a large box labeled “The Kick the Bum Out Ballot Box Company.” A large spring extends from the box with a shoe at its end. The shoe is kicking a man holding a briefcase through the air. The caption underneath the cartoon says, “Still the best congressional term-limiting device.

© Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Which of the following best captures the meaning of the cartoon above?

  1. Voters can limit the term of any member of Congress by simply exercising their right to vote.
  2. Term limits can be put in place only through an amendment to the Constitution.
  3. Term limits are needed to prevent incumbents from staying in office for life.
  4. Voters too often throw good people out of office.

No Child Left Behind-mandated reading and math tests are supposed to be crowding out instruction in civics, science and everything else, notes Quick and the Ed’s Kevin Carey. But NAEP shows a different pattern: NAEP scores are improving or holding steady in elementary and middle school, where there’s lots of  NCLB testing, and falling in high school, where there’s only one NCLB-mandated test. He speculates, “it’s hard to learn civics if you can’t read.”

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  1. Does it ever occur to anyone that these are utterly moronic questions? The NAEP is useless.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Here here. Not only are they stupid questions, not only are they *actually* watered-down reading comprehension questions (at least two of the three), but they’re not really aimed at the important sort of civics we should be teaching students.