Fault Lines in Our Democracy (ETS report)

Today the Educational Testing Service released a major new report entitled Fault Lines in Our Democracy, along with a website that provides videos and other ancillary materials.

Youth civic engagement and civic knowledge are crucial issues, and it is great that the ETS has issued a prominent report.

Their analysis in the report itself is accurate and rigorous. For full disclosure: I consulted on an earlier draft.

The framing, especially of the press release, is very negative: “Dismal Civics Knowledge Linked to Decline in Voting, Volunteering Among Young.” That’s not wrong, but the glass is half-full as well as half-empty. The statement about  “dismal” knowledge relies on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in civics, on whose design committee I have served. The NAEP’s cutoffs for “advanced” and “proficient” are essentially arbitrary, so it is not a fact that most youth lack proficiency; it  is a value-judgment. If you look closely at performance on particular questions, you will see that young people often perform quite well. For example, in 2010, 74 percent of 12th graders could identify the main ruling of Schenk v United States (1919) when given a quotation from the Supreme Court to analyze. Also, the NAEP mainly measures understanding of constitutional law and formal politics, not current events, social issues, or local affairs. Current-events knowledge is what predicts voting, and NAEP doesn’t measure that. Finally, it’s odd to lead in the press release with “declines” in voting and volunteering when both have risen in the past decade. But the negative framing is stronger in the press materials than in the report–and the report does identify real problems with civic knowledge and engagement.

Above all, we endorse the report’s emphasis on unequal civic knowledge and engagement. Average levels are not necessarily bad, but there are gigantic gaps in participation and knowledge by race and social class. These gaps reflect differences in opportunities to learn about politics, which CIRCLE has studied in depth.

[this entry cross-posted on the CIRCLE website]

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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.