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Global Test Shows Rising Understanding of Civic Responsibilities Beyond the U.S.

While in the United States, educators and policymakers continue to sound alarms about poor civic engagement and knowledge among young people, the latest International Civic and Citizenship Education Study finds young people in other countries have become more engaged and knowledgeable about citizenship since 2009.

ICCS gathered data from more than 94,000 students in about 3,800 schools in 24 countries—not including the United States, but including some of the education systems that perennially top other global academic tests, such as Hong Kong, South Korea, Sweden, and Finland. The United States participates in other global benchmarking tests run by the International Education Association, such as the Trends in International Math and Science Study, but has not participated in an international benchmarking in civics since the 1999 Civic Education Study, administered by the National Center for Education Statistics. At that time, U.S. students scored significantly higher than those in other countries on civic knowledge. The United States uses the National Assessment of Educational Progress to measure civics instead.

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All of the students in the current study were ages 13 to 14, in their eighth year of school. Across countries, the percentage of students who performed at Level A or B in content knowledge (see chart at left) rose from 61 percent to 67 percent from 2009, when the test was last administered, to 2016. That means more students are able to both understand their own basic rights and responsibilities of voting, for example, to being able to evaluate the effects and implications of proposed policies in a public debate.

Moreover, in surveys with the students and their teachers, the study showed that students who had higher levels of civic knowledge were also more likely to endorse equal opportunities for people of different genders or races and to be more open to interacting with people who held different opinions from their own. 

"Where we have countries participating, in about half of them, there was a tendency of significant improvement in civic knowledge," said Wolfram Schulz, the international study director for the Australian Council for Educational Research, who led the study.

While none of the countries in the ICCS study considered civics a "core subject" on the same level of importance as math or reading, 11 of the participating countries required students to take civics or citizenship in a separate class, while 18 integrated the subject into multiple courses. More than 60 percent of principals and teachers alike reported that developing students' "critical and independent thinking skills" was the most important factor in developing good citizenship.

"From a general perspective, ... you find in all of these countries, [civics education] has been of growing importance, and in each of these countries, there is something in play [in schools]—more emphasis is laid upon it," Schulz said. 

There was no consensus on the best approaches to teach citizenship in different countries, but ICCS did find that students whose teachers had an "open" classroom climate and who encouraged them to express their own opinions in class were more engaged and had higher civics knowledge on average than students whose teachers did not create an open classroom climate.

ICCS also found that students in 2016 were less likely than before to get information on politics or social issues by reading a newspaper or watching television, but nearly 1 in 3 students in participating countries also said they got information about politics and social issues online at least weekly. And, in what might be the most gratifying finding for parents of teenagers, 45 percent reported they talked with their parents at least once a week about international affairs, up from 38 percent in 2009. In particular, a majority of students reported they believed climate change, pollution, and water and food shortages were "global threats," and nearly 1 in 10 students reported having participated in an "environmental action group" in the last year.

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