Do Colorado's high school civics requirements affect the number of young people who vote?

A new study disparages Colorado for requiring little civics education -- something it ties to a poll showing that young people don't understand voting laws, such as whether a photo ID is required to vote. (It isn't in Colorado.) But the study, done by the Massachusetts-based Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, or CIRCLE, left out recently approved social studies testing rules that go into effect in 2014.

Starting in the spring of 2014, Colorado students will be tested in social studies along with math, reading and science. The tests will include questions about civics and will be given to students in fourth grade, seventh grade and once in high school, says Stephanie Hartman, the social studies content specialist for the Colorado Department of Education.

Back in 2010, we wrote about several civic-minded groups lobbying the State Board of Education to add social studies to the list of subjects in which students are tested. The state standardized tests are currently called TCAP -- the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program -- as the state switches from its old testing system, CSAP, to a new one aligned to recently adopted educational standards.

One geography professor's argument was particularly compelling. She shared the results of a recent map test she'd given her community college students. One student labeled the Rocky Mountains "the Alps," another ID'd Alaska as "Germany" and a third created a new state: South Virginia. In addition, she said only six students knew Joe Biden was the vice president. One guessed it was Barack Obama.

"Civic education is how we prepare people to be good citizens, which was the original purpose of public schooling in the United States," says Peter Levine, the director of CIRCLE. "It's pretty badly needed."

Continue for more on how Colorado stacks up. CIRCLE's study looked at civics requirements in all fifty states and found that many come up short of what the policy center considers necessary. While 39 states require high school students to take at least one course in civics or American government, only eight states administer standardized tests in those subjects. Two states -- Ohio and Virginia -- require students to pass those tests to graduate.

Levine says CIRCLE would like to see students be required to take four years of social studies, with one year focused on civics. The group would also like to see more tests -- and more tests that aren't multiple-choice or high-stakes. The best kind of tests, Levine says, count toward students' grade point averages but aren't punitive.

Colorado scored poorly because in 2012, it does not have a social studies test, nor does state law specify the length of the civics course students must take. Hartman confirms that state law "does not stipulate the length of the course."

Levine says Colorado's plan to add a test is "a step forward." But he adds that "people shouldn't be satisfied with the policies in place this school year."

As for how weak social studies requirements, a phenomenon Levine attributes to the recent emphasis placed on reading and math due to high-stakes tests, affect the youth vote, a graph credited to CIRCLE that appeared on Forbes's website shows that more eighteen- to 29-year-olds voted in 2004 and 2008 than did in 2000 or 1996.

"That can happen even if civic education is not doing well, because the candidates can do a good job of motivating young people to vote," Levine says. "What we worry about more is that people won't be informed and skillful citizens. We're trying to teach people to be able to discuss controversial issues, make plans together, run organizations, serve their fellow citizens and serve on juries. So there's a lot more to learn than just voting."

Below, see a presentation about Colorado's new state tests given to the State Board of Education this week. According to CDE, the science and social studies tests will be administered online and will include simulations and performance-based tasks.

Board Assessment Update 2012 (Final)

More from our Politics archive: "Denver Diner case: Mayor Michael Hancock says reforms needed at Civil Service Commission."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar