Dismal Civics Knowledge Linked to Decline in Voting, Volunteering Among Young

Report Urges Concerted Efforts on Multiple Fronts


Princeton, N.J. (May 22, 2012) —

With the presidential election approaching, a new study from Educational Testing Service (ETS) shows that weak civics knowledge among young people is linked to less voting, less volunteering and greater distrust in government. The report calls for sustained efforts on the part of parents, the public, the educational system, and local and national leaders to address these fault lines in our democracy that threaten our nation's civic well-being.

Fault Lines in Our Democracy: Civic Knowledge, Voting Behavior, and Civic Engagement in the United States was written by Richard J. Coley of the ETS Center for Research on Human Capital and Education and Andrew Sum of the Center for Labor Market Studies, Northeastern University. The report takes an in-depth look at civic knowledge, voting and civic engagement, and examines how they differ across important segments of our population. In all cases, civic participation was strongly related to one's age, level of education and skills, and income.

The report warns that many students in U.S. schools lack acceptable levels of knowledge about civics:

  • In the most recent national assessment, only about one-quarter reached the "proficient" level, demonstrating solid academic performance.
  • Only 27 percent of fourth-graders could identify the purpose of the U.S. Constitution.
  • Only 22 percent of eighth-graders could recognize a role played by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lower voter participation among growing segments of the population is rising just as the United States faces challenges of historic proportions — including a struggling economy, budget deficits, a growing national debt, health care issues, an aging infrastructure, global terrorism and a host of other problems.

"Solutions will have to come from a well-educated, skilled and creative workforce," says Coley. "For our democracy to function so that we meet these challenges, our nation must have better-educated citizens who understand how our democratic system works, believe in it, and participate by voting and volunteering."

The report contends that our democracy is increasingly responding only to specific groups and populations. For instance:

  • Older adults with the most education and the highest incomes were the most likely to vote.
  • Nearly three-quarters of 55- to 74-year-olds voted in the most recent presidential election, compared to less than half of 18- to 24-year-olds.
  • The voting rate for adults with advanced degrees is twice as high as the rate for high school dropouts (83 versus 39 percent).
  • While 90 percent of those earning more than $100,000 voted, only 51 percent of those earning less than $20,000 did.
  • Many nonvoters in recent national elections indicated they were not interested, didn't believe their vote mattered, or simply disliked the candidates.

"Voting is not the only behavior increasingly associated with age, educational attainment and income," says Sum. "So is volunteering. Younger people with lower levels of education and incomes are highly disengaged from active civic involvement, serving as a serious impediment to a truly democratic society."

To illustrate this, the authors created a Civic Engagement Index (CEI) based on five voting or volunteering activities and put them on a 0–5 scale. Engagement ranged from 0 ("did none of the activities") to 5 ("did all of the activities"). The average score for all U.S. adults was 1.5, Sum says.

What to do?
The authors call for action on a number of fronts to address this lack of civic involvement, including the creation of a National Commission on Civic Engagement to seek solutions to the low levels of voting, volunteering and engagement by America's younger, less-educated and lower-income populations. They also support expanding the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics to the states so that policymakers get a better picture of the civics knowledge of their students. 

Voter turnout rates would improve, the authors write, if high schools could boost graduation rates, expand opportunities for students to participate in civic activities, and encourage those of voting age to register as a prerequisite for high school graduation. 

The nation's colleges and universities also can more actively encourage voting and civic participation by their students through community service and leadership-development courses for students. 

Reforms such as voting-by-mail, early voting and weekend voting also may hold promise, but many states have taken steps to shorten early voting periods or impose new restrictions on voter registration drives. 

"Civic knowledge is a cornerstone of a strong democracy," Coley says. "It promotes support for democratic institutions and values, builds trust in government-by-the-people and elected officials, and contributes to greater civic involvement in important areas including voting and volunteering. The dismal state of the civics knowledge of our nation's students represents a real fault line in our democracy."

Copies of Fault Lines in Our Democracy: Civic Knowledge, Voting Behavior, and Civic Engagement in the United States, can be downloaded from www.ets.org/faultlines.

About ETS

At ETS, we advance quality and equity in education for people worldwide by creating assessments based on rigorous research. ETS serves individuals, educational institutions and government agencies by providing customized solutions for teacher certification, English language learning, and elementary, secondary and post-secondary education, as well as conducting education research, analysis and policy studies. Founded as a nonprofit in 1947, ETS develops, administers and scores more than 50 million tests annually — including the TOEFL® and TOEIC® tests, the GRE® tests and The Praxis Series™ assessments — in more than 180 countries, at over 9,000 locations worldwide. www.ets.org