Op Ed: Schools must beef up civics, history lessons before we lower the voting age

December 24, 2020

By Patrick Maloney

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has endorsed a proposal to lower the legal voting age from 18 to 16 in federal elections, and several Democratic presidential hopefuls also are touting the idea.

Whatever you might think initially of the concept, it’s important to consider it against the following backdrop: In 2014, a nationally representative sample of 9,100 eighth-grade students were administered a test designed to measure “the civics knowledge and skills that are critical to the responsibilities of citizenship in America.”

Only 23 percent of the students answered enough questions correctly to demonstrate proficiency in the subject, and just 2 percent scored at the advanced level.

A similar test — part of the quadrennial National Assessment of Educational Progress, America’s so-called “Nation’s Report Card” — was given in U.S. history.

This test was taken by 11,200 eighth-graders. The scores were even worse, with 18 percent of the students judged to be “proficient” and just 1 percent scoring at the advanced level.

Those former eighth-graders will be eligible to vote for the first time in next year’s elections.

This was not a one-off bad year for U.S. students. It was part of a consistent, ongoing pattern, and there’s little reason to believe that 2014’s eighth-graders learned much more about our country’s government and history in grades nine through 12.

In fact, in 2010 — the last time these tests were given to high school seniors — just 12 percent scored at or above the proficient level in history and just one in four or 24 percent performed at that level in civics.

Eighth-graders that year were equally clueless. For example, when asked to identify a purpose of the Bill of Rights, fewer than half came up with the correct answer.

When asked to choose the definition of our government’s system of checks and balances, only 10 percent made the right choice. And this was a multiple-choice question; one of the choices was the correct answer.

The reason we find ourselves in this situation has nothing to do with the quality and dedication of America’s teachers or the ability of American students.

My colleagues and I work closely with high school and middle school history and civics teachers from around the country and find them, as a group, to be able, dedicated and genuinely enthusiastic about these subjects. The same is true for their students, when they’re exposed to the exciting story of America and the well thought out and vigorously debated architecture of our government.

The trouble is that most students are not exposed to such details in their schools. Little more is required of them in most states than cursory knowledge of these important topics. For example, California, the nation’s most populous state, requires just a half year of civics and a year of U.S. history — and no exam in either — for students to graduate from high school.

According to an October 2018 survey by Education Week, only eight states require a full year of civics. Thirty-one require a full year of U.S. history. Nineteen states require students to take a civics test, and 15 states require a U.S. history exam.

But, Education Week cautions, “students are not necessarily required to pass some of these exams.” Fifteen states have no specific requirement for any civics classes at all, and 11 have no history requirement.

Regardless of the legal voting age, we do our students a disservice by not giving them the knowledge and skills necessary to be responsible citizens — and our country suffers because of it.

Rather than focusing on changing the voting age, which has the appearance of legislating for political gain, lawmakers should instead commit themselves to reinvigorating civics and history education, which would benefit all of us.

Patrick Maloney is deputy director of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio.