News Release

Civics test policy fails to increase youth voter turnout, researchers find

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A civics test policy mandated in 18 states that focuses on rote memorization and testing of political knowledge did not improve youth voter turnout as intended, according to Penn State College of Education researchers. As an alternative, they recommend a thorough integration of practical information on the voter registration process within social studies curricula.

“Providing students opportunities to really engage with what leadership means, having discussions and debates with leaders and politicians, mock elections… those are all more practical ways to bring this idea of civic participation and civic knowledge to life,” said Maithreyi Gopalan, assistant professor of education and public policy.

“It is important for policymakers to understand that traditional civic education that emphasizes increasing students’ political knowledge through rote memorization and standardized tests does not seem very promising in terms of improving consequential civic engagement outcomes amongst youth, especially voter turnout,” said Jilli Jung, a doctoral student in educational policy. “Mandating that schools administer civic tests that focus on political knowledge testing/fact-based assessments might be a wasted policy opportunity when it comes to improving civic engagement among youth.”

The study — published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis — was conducted by Jung and Gopalan. Between 2016 and 2022, 18 states implemented a version of the Civics Education Initiative (CEI), which requires high school students to take or pass a standardized civics test as a condition for graduation.

For their study, the researchers nationally representative data on self-reported voting behaviors of U.S. citizens ages 18 to 22 from the 1996-2020 Current Population Survey (CPS). The CPS interviews approximately 54,000 households monthly — including approximately 36,000 young citizens — and provides extensive information on individuals’ employment situation and demographic characteristics. The researchers tracked youth voting in individual states before and after they adopted CEI policies. They used age-specific, self-reported voter turnout data from the 2020 presidential election, a survey conducted after the adoption of CEI, as well as six other prior presidential elections from 1996 to 2016 to evaluate the efficacy of state-mandated CEI.

Among advanced democracies, the U.S. has the largest age gap in voter turnout. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the 2020 presidential election, turnout among voters ages 18 to 24 was approximately 25% lower than those ages 65 to 74. Despite reaching one of its highest levels since 1971 when the minimum voting age was lowered to 18 years old, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, youth voter turnout remains low at 48%.

Jung and Gopalan found that young people in states requiring the civics tests for graduation were at most 1.5 percentage points more likely to vote than peers in states that didn’t have such civics requirements, which is not statistically significant.

“At least in the short term, we’re basically finding non-effects across the board,” Gopalan said.

But the policy doesn’t appear to harm young citizens, the researchers said.

“Luckily, however, we found that this policy did not negatively affect high school graduation rates, either — a likely unintended consequence of such a policy that we were concerned about,” Jung added.

The main problem with using CEI as a tool to drive voter turnout, Jung and Gopalan said, is that the rote memorization involved in preparing for the test does not provide broader discussion around American politics.

“We would argue that basic CEI policy forces students to memorize a pre-determined set of questions and answers, so they don’t need to explore context,” Jung said. “This test-based memorization approach is not helpful. Given that CEI uses questions from a publicly available naturalization exam, students may simply memorize answers.”

As an alternative to CEI, Jung and Gopalan said, schools and school leaders might find it more useful to implement more practical learning opportunities in the classroom — such as holding mock elections or having students participate in political campaigns.

Gopalan emphasized the urgency of taking immediate action with the 2024 presidential election fast approaching.

“In the short term, I really want to encourage policymakers but also educators to provide more practical guidance to young voters — how to locate a polling booth, how to register to vote,” she said. “It is essential to encourage and incentivize youth to come out and vote because we need that for a thriving democracy.”

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