The NCSL Blog


By Kevin Frazzini

Who’s going to run the country if no one knows how it works?

U.S. CapitolAmericans’ knowledge of civics—the study of government and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship—seems to be fading, writes NCSL’s Megan McClure in this month’s State Legislatures magazine.

Many of us struggle with basic questions about the country’s history and system of governance: What is the supreme law of the land? How many voting members are in the U.S. House of Representatives? What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?

Fewer than 30 percent of fourth-, eighth- and 12th-grade students were proficient in civics, and there’s a significant gap between white students and students of color, McClure writes, citing the National Assessment of Educational Progress civics assessment.

But kids aren’t the only ones on shaky civics ground. Barely one-third of more than 1,400 adults could name the three branches of government in a survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

The risk widespread civics ignorance poses, experts say, is that the less people know, the less they’re able to fulfill their duties as citizens.

“A democratic government cannot function without citizens’ participation, and civics education provides the bedrock for that participation. The less the population knows and understands about how the American system of government works and the values and history behind it, the more vulnerable the system becomes,” says Charles N. Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education.

There are bright spots, though. Some states are beginning to require high school students to pass a citizenship test to graduate, and several nonprofits are joining the fight for civics literacy. One is iCivics, founded in 2010 by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to provide web-based games and tools to help students learn about and participate in civic life.

>Test your own civics IQ with the sample of citizenship-test questions that accompanies McClure’s story.

Kevin Frazzini is the assistant editor of State Legislatures magazine.

Kevin Frazzini

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.