High school civics linked to voting participation

Published on Tuesday, January 29, 2013

CivicsA large, national survey of young Americans released this month shows a clear relationship between high school civics education and political participation in the 2012 presidential election.

The survey, conducted by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), also shows that most young adults who voted in 2012 could choose an issue that was important to them and knew where the candidates stood on at least one relevant policy. Young Obama and Romney voters had strikingly similar levels of political knowledge. However, taking high school civics had little or no relationship with party registration or young adults’ choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. In addition, the survey revealed widespread misinformation on some issues, and young people who did not vote scored poorly on the knowledge questions.

CIRCLE, the nation’s premier research center on youth civic engagement, is based at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University. CIRCLE’s poll of 4,483 young Americans, ages 18-24, was conducted from the day after the election until Dec. 21. More analysis and specific results are available in a fact sheet.

The CIRCLE poll provides the most current and extensive data on young people’s knowledge relevant to voting and elections. Only 24 percent of 12th graders scored at the “proficient” level on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics, which is a federal study and the most prominently cited statistic on civic education. But, as CIRCLE explains in a companion fact sheet, the NAEP Civics assessment only measures certain kinds of knowledge, and its definition of “proficient” is open to debate.

The survey released today found that 87.8 percent of respondents recalled taking some kind of civics course in high school. Of those who took some kind of civics course, almost all (96.9 percent) learned at least some information about voting. Of those who recalled studying voting during high school, 60.2 percent turned out to vote in 2012--as opposed to only 43 percent of those who recalled no civic education course. The more that respondents’ teachers had taught them about voting, the more likely they were to vote in 2012. 

The survey not only captured the respondents’ recollections of whether they had taken a course in civics education, but also the quality of their educational experiences in civics. High-quality experiences included projects in the community or teachers’ encouraging discussion of current events, among others. A little over one quarter of respondents said they had not taken civics at all or recalled a just one high-quality experience. Another 31.5 percent remembered two or three high-quality experiences. The remaining 43.5 percent could remember four or five relevant civics experiences. That last group had much more knowledge and was much more likely to vote last November.

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