Tennessee becomes the first state to use projects to assess civics

(Chicago) On April 27, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill that will require school districts to assess their students’ knowledge of civics by giving them assignments that are “student-influenced” and that involve an “inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.” These assignments will be used (once in grades 4-8 and a second time in grades 9-12) in lieu of written tests to find out whether Tennessee’s students can “demonstrate understanding and relevance of public policy, the structure of federal, state and local governments and both the Tennessee and the Untied States constitutions.”

The bill doesn’t (and shouldn’t) specify what the assignments will be like, but I hope that many Tennessee students will choose issues of concern to them in their own communities, investigate those issues using rigorous research, and develop plans for improving their communities.

Testing and accountability generally pose a dilemma for civic education. If we don’t test civic knowledge and skills, they become afterthoughts in education, especially in schools where lots of kids are at risk of failing the subjects that are tested. But if we impose a new test, then (1) it becomes yet another way for students to fail, and (2) it encourages teachers to focus on the basic facts of government that are likely to be tested, even though there’s little evidence that learning these facts is motivating or that kids retain them later.

Project-based assessments are much more promising. Kids will have to do something with their civic knowledge, something that seems important to them. At a minimum, Tennessee’s bill is a very worthy experiment. The questions will be: What do kids learn? What kinds of instruction become common? And how reliable is the assessment?

If the experiment works out really well, then civics could cease to be an afterthought and could instead become an excellent means to assess general student performance. After all, if you can complete a complex project involving social issues and governance, you must have good academic skills.

Credit apparently belongs to the indefatigable Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who met with two leading state legislators (Sen. Mark Norris and Rep. Kevin Brooks) earlier this year to encourage them to do something for civics. With the help of Janis Keyser, Executive Director of the Tennessee Center for Civic Learning & Engagement, the legislators wrote a really foresighted bill that passed in less than three months.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.