ETS Study: Dismal Civics Knowledge Linked to Decline in Voting, Volunteering Among the Young

A new study from the 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, released yesterday, calls for sustained efforts on the part of parents, the public, the educational system, and local and national leaders to address issues that threaten the nation’s civic well-being.

“Fault Lines in Our Democracy: Civic Knowledge, Voting Behavior, and Civic Engagement in the United States”, 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 at Northeastern University, takes an in-depth look at civic knowledge, voting and civic engagement, and examines how they differ across segments of the 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 of students reached the “proficient” level, demonstrating solid academic performance. Only 27 percent of fourth-graders could identify the purpose of the U.S. Constitution, and 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, the authors say.

“Solutions will have to come from a well-educated, skilled and creative workforce,” Coley said. “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 the U.S. democracy is increasingly responding only to specific groups and populations. For example, 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). And 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,” Sum said. “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.”

The authors created a civic engagement index 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 only 1.5, Sum said.

Coley and Sum are calling 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 in civics to the states so that policymakers get a better picture of the civics knowledge of their students.

Voter turnout rates would improve, they said, 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, they said.

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 said. “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 the study can be downloaded at