States Reduce Focus on Social Studies, Civics

Published December 3, 2012

All 50 states have social studies standards, but only 21 test students on the topic and nine require students to pass them to graduate, according to a new Tufts University analysis of state K-12 civics requirements.

“States say civic education is important, but very few test on it,” said Cheryl Miller, manager of the American Enterprise Institute’s Program for American Citizenship. “That communicates something to teachers, administrators, parents, and students about the importance of this subject.”

The survey, the first of its kind in five years, also found states define the subject broadly, including in it topics such as civics, government, history, and geography.

Federal Influence
Federal regulations such as No Child Left Behind have caused states to shift attention to subjects the law requires states to test: reading and math, the report says. In 2001, for example, 34 states administered regular social studies tests, but that number has dropped to 21.

“With all the attention that’s on reading and math because of high-stakes testing, citizenship education has kind of gotten left behind,” Miller said.

Forty-one states require at least three years of high school social studies classes. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, reveals only 12 percent of high school seniors score proficient in U.S. history. In civics, the percentage is 24 percent.

“If states don’t spend a lot of time on it and don’t make it a priority, the results aren’t going to be that great,” Miller said.

Necessary for Self-Government
Previous research from Tufts’ Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) has found “engaging” civic education boosts people’s interest in news and politics after high school graduation, said Surbhi Godsay, a survey coauthor.

“Young people … are required to make sense of candidates’ stances on complex issues, as well as navigate a difficult multistep registration and voting process,” she noted. 

Quality civic education is correlated with youth and adult civic engagement, “thereby sustaining and strengthening democracy,” said Abby Kiesa, a CIRCLE researcher.

Image by Samuel Mann.