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Opinion: To bolster civics knowledge & reading skills, why not do both at the same time?

Ross Wiener | July 6, 2023

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The recent dismal civics and history results from the Nation’s Report Card put American democracy at risk. Eighth-graders recorded their lowest scores ever in U.S. history and the first decline in civics scores. The decreases were most dramatic for lower-performing students. Just under half of eighth-graders report taking a class primarily focused on civics, and fewer than one-third have a teacher whose primary responsibility is teaching civics. School accountability policies that emphasize reading and math scores have led to less time spent on other essential subjects.

To counter this unproductive narrowing of the curriculum, states should embed civic content into statewide reading assessments. This simple change would incentivize more attention to civic learning while making reading tests more engaging, equitable and accurate.

Just 6% of American middle schoolers can read an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech and identify two ideas from the Constitution or Declaration of Independence that King might have been referring to. This is a symptom of the atrophy in the civic mission of schools that represents a grave danger to American democracy. Only 30% of Millennials think a democratic government is essential, compared with 70% of Americans born before World War II. Most Millennials say that if Russia invaded the United States, they would not fight to defend our country. These data are a wake-up call that the nation needs to recommit public schools to their foundational purpose: preparing young Americans for citizenship.

Including civic content on every grade’s reading test is low-hanging fruit because it encourages engagement with meaningful issues while signaling to teachers the importance of covering social studies content — all of which improves literacy instruction. While phonics (knowing letter sounds) and decoding (putting together sounds to make words) are essential foundational skills, they are not sufficient for proficient reading. Students also need background knowledge to make sense of what they are seeing on the page. Research shows that when students are given a text about a topic they are familiar with, they perform better on reading tests. Conversely, students perform more poorly when confronted with texts on topics they’ve never learned about, even if they have strong reading skills.

Louisiana is piloting assessments that put this idea into practice, with promising results. Some texts in the state’s innovative reading test draw directly from books students have read, with additional passages extending into related topics. Designing tests around what students are expected to be taught makes sense and dovetails state expectations for learning, classroom curricula and reading comprehension assessments.

When students are familiar with the topics being tested, they stay more engaged and do better. Early research reveals that achievement gaps are somewhat smaller on Louisiana’s pilot tests, partly because the opportunity gap is being narrowed by creating more equitable opportunities for students to demonstrate their reading skills. Tests that use random texts privilege students who have more world knowledge from outside of school. Louisiana’s innovative test design encourages teachers to focus on the topics the state wants students to learn and more accurately assesses their reading skills.

Embedding civic content in reading tests would make teachers’ jobs easier and support better student learning outcomes. Every state already has adopted civics standards, and almost all state English language arts standards include expectations for reading and writing in science and social studies. But only Louisiana has prioritized content from its standards in innovative reading/language arts assessments. Every state could make similar progress by making small shifts in the direction it gives to its testing contractor.

Including a focus on civic learning in reading tests is a simple solution that can be implemented by state education commissioners and testing directors without changing any laws or regulations. That said, this shift should be done with key stakeholders through an open and inclusive process. Leading with public engagement and input creates the opportunity to share the rationale and build trust with educators, parents and policy leaders, minimizing the risk that this becomes a polarizing idea. Parents are likely to support the change because they want tests of what’s being taught in class much more than generic standardized tests.

In 2012, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, “the only reason we have public school education in America is because in the early days of the country, our leaders thought we had to teach our young generation about citizenship … that obligation never ends. If we don’t take every generation of young people and make sure they understand that they are an essential part of government, we won’t survive.”

Democracy is being tested in real life. Reading tests can signal the importance of civic learning and lead to more time and attention to this vital content. State education commissioners should make this a first step to reinvigorate public education’s mission as a bulwark of democracy.

Ross Wiener is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Education & Society Program

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