Some states are moving to improve their school civics curricula to make sure that students understand how the U.S. government works and what it means to be a citizen in the 21st century.
While civics education is wound into the curriculum of social studies classes across the nation, some states have taken bigger strides to teach their students about America's government.
Every state requires its students to have some amount of civics education before graduating from high school, but how much – and how students are assessed — varies greatly. Several groups and former politicians are working to create more comprehensive civics curricula around the country.
In 2015, Arizona became the first state to require high school students to pass a civics test with questions drawn from the U.S. naturalization test to graduate, according to the Education Commission of the States.
Groups such as the Joe Foss Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on public service, advocate for requiring students to pass a civics test as a condition of graduation, with the idea that teachers will need to teach the information on the test. In recent years, at least 16 states, from Missouri to Louisiana to Minnesota, have passed laws requiring students to take a civics test before receiving their diplomas.
Some argue that while well-intentioned, that doesn’t go far enough.
Peter Levine, a professor at Tufts University who focuses on citizenship and public affairs, said he worries that simply requiring students to pass a version of the citizenship test may lead to less comprehensive civics lessons.
“I think it’s actually a step back,” he said. “That test is really easy and really poorly designed. In many states, kids are getting a lot more than they would need to pass a test that you can study for in an hour.”
Some say the citizenship test sets the bar too low for graduating seniors, who at 18 years old are already of voting age.
“I’m afraid that if that test becomes the standard for success of civics, it’ll be an excuse to cut civics,” he said.
However, many states are devising their own civics curricula. Levine said input not just from political scientists, but also from historians, geographers, economists, and education professors is needed to create policy.
“It’s not something that we have to persuade people to even consider, but it’s also been a relatively low priority in an era of anxiety about math and reading and STEM,” Levine said. “It could be better, and it should be better.”
In 2011, federal funding for social studies and civics was eliminated, forcing states to reprioritize their education budgets.
Levine points to Illinois and Florida as examples of states with thorough civics curricula even as the nation moves toward increased math and science education.
"During the recent CivX summit in D.C., for example, panelists pointed out that the obsessive focus on assessment in math, reading, and science has not necessarily improved outcomes," said Stephen Masyada, director of the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship.
In Florida, the emphasis is in middle school, where students learn a combination of history and social studies. The state plans to revise its state Constitution next year, and one amendment proposes schools be required to teach civics.
“There’s not a lot of resistance to it — it boils down to how do we assure this,” Masyada said.
Civics lessons existed long before the Trump administration, he said.
Knowing the difference between the nation’s founding documents and someone’s interpretation of those documents is key. Social media has given rise to new issues such as the importance of primary sources, Masyada said.
“If kids can’t read the primary sources, that’s a problem,” he said.
Last year, Florida passed a law requiring students entering college to show civic literacy. The state is still deciding how students’ proficiency will be measured, through the AP U.S. History exam, the AP Government exam taken in high school for college credit, or by taking the naturalization test during orientation. Masyada said that approach could fall short.
“Is that civic literacy or is that historical or government literacy?” Masyada said. "All the answers can be found online."
There’s a difference between knowing how the government works and understanding how to be an active citizen, he said.
Masyada points to institutes started by former Florida Gov. and Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat, and former Republican Rep. Lou Frey that have led the charge in Florida to provide resources to public K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities across the state. The institutes help train teachers to teach civics and bring students in to learn how government works, including a yearly mock Senate for high school students.
Don Gaetz, a former Florida state senator, has worked with the institutes to advocate for increased civics education. He is sponsoring the amendment to the state constitution.
He said while Florida has one of the best civics curricula in the country, having the need for that education codified into the state’s founding documents is vital.
“Unfortunately, most of us don’t have a good grip on how government actually works and what our rights and obligations are,” he said. “Many teachers don’t know enough civics to teach civics ... There is a large number of teachers who are subject area experts in what they teach, but if they are also asked to teach civics, it’s also like asking them to teach physics.”