Citizens in democracies have the potential to make meaningful contributions to civic life, but to do so requires the development of certain kinds of knowledge, skills, and dispositions. The extent to which citizens develop the skills needed to effectively participate is a topic of great interest to researchers, educators, and policy makers alike. Although there is no universal agreement on the ideal set of civic skills, some skills are generally regarded as especially important. Many experts agree that these skills develop over time, both at home and in school, as well as in peer groups and organizations. However, the development of civic skills requires knowledge and opportunities that may not be universally available.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has measured students' progress in multiple disciplines, including civics, since 1969. The program, administered by the US Department of Education, assesses students' levels of progress in subject areas at grades four, eight, and twelve. The results from NAEP assessments, known as “the nation's report card,” provide a national overview of what students know in each discipline. The NAEP civics assessment distinguishes civic intellectual or cognitive skills from civic participatory skills. As stated in the report, “the intellectual skills essential for informed, effective, and responsible citizenship are categorized … as identifying and describing; explaining and analyzing; and evaluating, taking, and defending positions on public issues” ( National Center for Education Statistics 2011, 4 ). The categories of “participatory skills essential for informed, effective, and responsible citizenship are … interacting, monitoring, and influencing” ( NCES 2011, 4–5 ). Of course, effective use of any of these skills requires a framework of civic and political ideas (i.e., knowledge) as well as the character traits that would dispose or motivate someone to participate.
The development of civic skills and the opportunity to practice them by participating in civic life are associated with self-efficacy—namely, the belief in one's ability to succeed ( Beaumont 2010 ). Moreover, the opportunity to develop these skills occurs in many places, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Engagement (CIRCLE). In the 2010 fact sheet “Civic Skills and Federal Policy,” CIRCLE authors suggested that skills are acquired in classrooms ( K–12 as well as higher education ), workplaces, religious institutions, families, neighborhoods, and community and national service programs. However, researchers found that Americans have unequal access to opportunities to develop civic skills. Specifically, research suggests that those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, those who leave school before graduation, and those who are taught by certain instructional methods (such as rote memorization or in lecture-only classrooms) are less likely to develop skills than others ( Kahne and Middaugh 2008; Levinson 2010; Torney-Purta and Wilkenfeld 2009 ). In addition, race and ethnicity as well as immigration status have been linked to a “civic empowerment gap” related to civic knowledge, skills, and participation ( Levinson 2010 ). Therefore, measuring the civic skills of US students at the national level and across multiple groups, as done by the NAEP civics assessment, is an important undertaking.
The 2010 NAEP civics assessment examined nationally representative samples of fourth-, eighth-, and twelfthgrade students. As stated in “The Nation's Report Card: Civics 2010,” the test was designed to measure “the civic knowledge and skills that are critical to the responsibilities of citizenship in America's constitutional democracy” ( National Center for Education Statistics 2011, 1 ). The assessment was based on the premise that democratic citizenship requires knowledge of institutions and processes as well as the development of skills. The questions on the civics test examined three components: (1) knowledge about the government, political system, and civil society; (2) “intellectual and participatory skills” needed to apply that knowledge to participation; and (3) dispositions, or “private and public character traits essential to the preservation and improvement of American constitutional democracy” ( NCES 2011, 5 ).
The “Civics Framework for the 2010 NAEP” identified sets of intellectual skills as (1) identifying and describing (such as defining key terms, distinguishing among branches of the government, or identifying individuals and institutions); (2) explaining and analyzing (such as drawing conclusions about cause and effect or distinguishing between fact and opinion); and (3) applying a problem-solving approach by practicing the skills of evaluating, taking, and defending positions on public issues. Participatory skills include: (1) interacting (such as communication and cooperation with other citizens); (2) monitoring ( such as making informed judgements about the government's performance ); and (3) influencing (such as the ability to collaborate, question, negotiate, and discuss civic issues).
In addition to the scale scores, achievement level benchmarks were set by the NAEP Governing Board based on recommendations made by educators, subject-matter experts, and policy makers. The “Civics 2010” report establishes three achievement levels—basic, proficient, and advanced—to indicate what students at each grade level know and can do: the basic level signifies a “partial mastery” ; proficient represents “solid academic performance” ; and advanced indicates “superior performance” ( NCES 2011, 2 ). When NAEP results are made public, they are reported as the percentages of students who tested at each achievement level.
Results from the “Civics 2010” assessment are outlined in Table 1. About three-quarters of the students in grades four and eight performed at or above the basic level of achievement, whereas about two-thirds of the twelfthgrade students performed at or above the basic level. In addition, the 2010 assessment included a comparison of average scores in the civics assessments of 1998, 2006, and 2010. In 2010 the fourth-grade students scored higher on the test than they did the previous two years, whereas the eighth-grade students showed no significant change over either year. The twelfth graders scored lower in 2010 than in 2006, and their 2010 score was not different from their 1998 score. The trend seems to be progress at grade four, but not in grades eight and twelve.
In addition to trend analysis, NAEP results are also broken down by student variables such as gender, racial and ethnic groups, parental education levels, and student eligibility for the National School Lunch Program (as an indicator of income). At all three grade levels there were gaps in performance associated with many of the demographic variables, consistent with other research in the field.
Education has the potential to help students develop both the intellectual and participatory skills necessary for civic engagement. Judith Torney-Purta and Britt Wilkenfeld ( 2009 ) found that ninth grade students in classrooms where both knowledge instruction and student interaction were emphasized scored higher on skills measures than students in classrooms where teachers emphasized one method over the other. The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools in 2011 recommended forming partnerships between higher education institutions and K–12 schools, especially K–12 schools with high proportions of students from lower-income backgrounds. Once young people have the necessary skills, and are given the opportunity to practice those skills, they are likely to develop a sense of efficacy and become engaged citizens. Campus Compact, a national coalition of colleges and universities, is one such collaboration that promotes community service and partnerships between campuses and communities.
SEE ALSO Civic Education ; Civic Empowerment Gap ; Civic Engagement ; Civic Participation ; Political Efficacy .
Beaumont, Elizabeth. “Political Agency and Empowerment: Pathways for Developing a Sense of Political Efficacy in Young Adults.” In Handbook of Research on Civic Engagement of Youth, edited by Lonnie R. Sherrod, Judith Torney-Purta, and Constance A. Flanagan. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010.
Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, with the Lenore Annenberg Institute for Civics of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools.” 2011. http://civicmission.s3.amazonaws.com/118/f0/5/171/1/Guardian-of-Democracy-report.pdf .
CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement). “Civic Skills and Federal Policy.” 2010. http://www.civicyouth.org/PopUps/FactSheets/FS_10_Civic_Skills_final.pdf .
Kirlin, Mary. “The Role of Civic Skills in Fostering Civic Engagement.” CIRCLE Working Paper 06. June 2003. http://www.civicyouth.org/PopUps/WorkingPapers/WP06Kirlin.pdf .
Kahne, Joseph, and Ellen Middaugh. “Democracy for Some: The Civic Opportunity Gap in High School.” CIRCLE Working Paper 59. February 2008. http://www.civicyouth.org/PopUps/WorkingPapers/WP59Kahne.pdf .
Levinson, Meira. “The Civic Empowerment Gap: Defining the Problem and Locating Solutions.” In Handbook of Research on Civic Engagement of Youth, edited by Lonnie R. Sherrod, Judith Torney-Purta, and Constance A. Flanagan. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010.
NAEP Civics Project, National Assessment Governing Board, US Department of Education. “Civics Framework for the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress.” 2010. http://www.nagb.org/content/nagb/assets/documents/publications/frameworks/civics/2010-civics-framework.pdf .
National Center for Education Statistics, US Department of Education. “The Nation's Report Card: Civics 2010— National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grades 4, 8, and 12.” NCES 2011-466. May 2011. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2010/2011466.pdf .
Torney-Purta, Judith, and Britt Wilkenfeld. “Paths to 21st Century Competencies Through Civic Education Classrooms: An Analysis of Survey Results from Ninth-Graders.” (A Technical Assistance Bulletin.) Chicago: American Bar Association, Division for Public Education, 2009. http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/public_education/civiclearningresource_booklet_lores.pdf .
Verba, Sidney, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry Brady. Voice and Equality: Civic Volunteerism in American Politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.