Assessing Students' Civic Development

by Emily Barry and Shawn Healy

Now that we’ve covered four proven civic learning practices and addressed why civic learning matters, let’s turn to the impact of high-quality civic learning experiences. What does a graduate of a strong civic learning program look like? Good civic learning provides students with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be active participants in our democracy.

How can we assess these outcomes? Civic assessment has puzzled many experts in the field, but emerging curricula articulate three distinct areas of civic assessment: knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

A student with civic knowledge understands the basic organization of government, key historical themes, and the principles and ideals of democracy. A student with a mastery of civic skills can identify powerholders, navigate different government institutions, and interact effectively with government to create change. A student with positive civic dispositions about democracy believes that their participation in government affects their community, and believes in the shared destiny of denizens.

It is difficult to measure each of these civic learning outcomes through a single assessment instrument. While multiple choice questions or short essays may accurately measure civic knowledge (see the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Civics), civic skills certainly cannot be gleaned from bubbling answers. In this latter case, a student portfolio or final project may be more appropriate. The State of Tennessee has done some enterprising work in this area.

Civic dispositions, or the important attitudes necessary for full civic participation, are even more difficult to measure. Classroom observations and student journals may provide some insights to student attitudes about civic life and participation in democracy.

These attitudes can also be measured through self-assessments of students’ current and prospective civic engagement. Aspiring Illinois Democracy Schools capture this information from a sample of their student bodies.

Civic assessment will be an important and evolving piece of Illinois’ implementation of the civics course requirement and a topic addressed in our ambitious summer tour coming to every region of the state.

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