Abysmal Civics Knowledge Prompts Florida to Implement Middle School Test

Published July 17, 2012

This school year Florida’s seventh graders will have to take a new standardized civics test. In 2014-2015, students must pass it to move up to high school.

After four years of tinkering with the idea in response to extremely low civics knowledge among Florida’s students and general public, the Florida House and Senate unanimously passed a bill in 2010 requiring the test be implemented by this school year. In Florida, civics is traditionally taught in seventh grade.

“The levels of civic participation in the state are really pretty low,” said Douglas Dobson, executive director of the Lou Frey Institute. “One component of addressing that is civic education.”

Low Civic Health Ratings
Lou Frey and the National Conference on Citizenship (NCC) regularly compile a “Civic Health Index,” which bill sponsors presented to Florida lawmakers in 2009 and 2010.

It found Florida 34th among the states in voter participation, 49th in volunteering, 48th in public meeting attendance, and 37th in citizens working together to solve local problems.

In addition to these four main indicators, the study also found only 46 percent of Floridians had donated $25 or more to charity in 2008, putting the state 44th in the country.

“[The Index] provided evidence that something needed to be done about civic health,” Dobson said.

The NCC regularly compares all states on the same measures. Florida ranked 46th overall in the Civic Health Index in 2009, the latest available.

“Despite the bright spots and other evidence of personal compassion among some,” the study concluded, “it is clear that Florida’s communities face a significant challenge to not only improve the state of their civic health, but to find ways to avoid further deterioration of citizen engagement.”

A National Problem
Florida isn’t alone in its lackluster civic engagement.

The 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress found just 24 percent of high school seniors rate “proficient” in civics and only 12 percent reach that level in U.S. history.

Two things contribute to this deficit, says Cheryl Miller, program manager of the American Enterprise Institute’s American Citizenship Program: high schools emphasize other subjects, and civics teachers’ education priorities have changed.

Teachers say social studies is being “pushed aside” in favor of math and reading, Miller said.

“There’s a real concern that social studies—this is what people are telling me—is being treated like art,” Miller said. “And art’s treated like it doesn’t matter.”

That’s why many teachers greet standardized civics tests with enthusiasm, Miller said. AEI’s program surveyed 1,000 randomly selected social studies teachers, and 90 percent said they favored standardized testing.

“Teachers seem to want to be tested,” she said. “They want to know they count.”

Deemphasizing Basic Facts
There is some question, however, about whether what teachers want to teach is really civics. In an AEI study of social studies teachers in 1,111 schools and three focus groups, about 50 percent said “internalizing core values like tolerance and equality” ranked first or second out of five teaching priorities. Just under 20 percent believed teaching “key facts and major events” should be their first or second priority.

“If students aren’t learning this in social studies,” Miller said, “Where are they learning it?”

Before the 2010 bill passed, Florida public schools were not required to teach civics.

“Some taught it; others used to teach it,” said Randall Felton, social studies coordinator for Florida’s Department of Education’s test development center.

This year the test will not affect a student’s civics class grade. In 2013-2014, it will account for 30 percent of the student’s in-class grade, and in 2014-2015 all students must pass the test to gain high school admission.

Students who fail the test can retake it in eighth grade.

Ensuring Standards Apply
Florida already requires standardized tests for several other subjects, including algebra, geometry, biology, and U.S. history.

“When you don’t have a standardized assessment, you don’t know how well the standards are being taught…. We believe so much in the standards we want to make sure they are being taught,” said Sharon Koon, assistant deputy commissioner for the Florida DOE’s Office of Assessment.


Image by the Province of British Columbia.