What does mastery of an academic skill look like? In education, we are constantly endeavoring to find the best ruler by which to measure student growth towards proficiency in fundamental skills. We believe that the best opportunities for authentically assessing the progress of our students occur when we push them to apply their skills and knowledge in real-world situations.

In civics, an obvious unit of measurement that accurately demonstrates that students are prepared for engagement in adult civic life, is voter registration.

In 2016, only 58% of eligible Americans participated in the presidential election. If we are doing our jobs facilitating our students’ mastery of civic skills, we should be able to measure our success by counting the percentage of students who register to vote and participate in this process, raising their voices in our communities’ electoral events. Are our students going to be more engaged in our democracy then the generation before them?

At Building 21 Allentown, we have incorporated voter registration into our culminating social studies studios. 

After investigating who can and can’t vote, who does and does not vote, and the barriers to full voter participation and solutions to remove them, our students are faced with the very personal decision – to register themselves as voters or not. 

Schools may shy away from voter registration projects out of fear of the challenges, but we have found that this need not be the case. In a recent discussion of members of the iCivics national Educator Network, a national group of teachers selected for their contributions to civic education and facilitated by iCivics, teachers compared successes and failures in implementing voter registration drives.

Teachers found that…

  • registration drives grounded in classroom instruction, rather than held as disconnected events during school lunches, are more successful. 

  • drives, where students register themselves and their peers, rather than drives run by outside organizations, are more successful.

At Building 21, voter registration happens primarily within US Government-focused senior year studios. Students develop the motivation to become active voters after using geography skills (Social Studies Competency SS.3: Understanding Geographic Representations – more information here) to analyze map-based data from the 2016 election, combined with demographic information on race and income from the 2010 census.

Density of Hispanic/Latino Population in Allentown (2010 Census)
2016 Voter Turnout (Lehigh County)

Students used maps such as those seen above (created using the geospatial tool ArcGIS, by ESRI) to notice correlations between demographic information and voter turnout data. Students noticed that the area of lowest voter turnout corresponds with the area of highest Hispanic population. This fueled a significant increase in motivation to register to vote among Hispanic students.

Students are able to place themselves within this data, noting which neighborhoods participate in elections and drawing conclusions about how well the voices of citizens, who are most like them, are represented in election results. They combine these observations with scholarly and journalistic investigation on reasons why people do and do not vote, and proposals for increasing US voter participation.

This investigation follows the three steps of civic action, as reflected in our civic competencies under the Social Studies Competency SS.2.2: Engaging as a Citizen:

In this case, their action is twofold; students create an argument either for or against measures for increasing voter turnout, and then make a personal decision about their own role in voter participation.  This personal decision is a demonstration of the first civic competency under Social Studies Competency SS.2 –  Participating in community.

One element that educators must be mindful of when embracing voter registration as a measure of civic engagement is how we engage students who are ineligible to vote. 

Allentown is a majority Hispanic school district where a significant percentage of students are not US Citizens. Teachers must be mindful to help students seek out multiple modes of civic expression and to provide opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery of these other modes. The voter registration drive can be one such opportunity, and many of our students who, due to age or immigration status, cannot themselves register emerge as leaders in supporting the registration of their peers.

In Pennsylvania, the Governor’s Office and the Department of State have created a program to recognize schools for conducting voter registrations drives and successfully sending their graduates out into the world as registered voters.

Last year, (the first year that our school had 18-year-old students in the building), our senior cohort of students earned the highest level of recognition (Gold) in the Governor’s Civic Engagement Award, with 87% of eligible students registered to vote before the set deadline. This year’s senior class has repeated that accomplishment; again, 87% of eligible students have been registered before this year’s earlier deadline.

Once Pennsylvania’s late April primary has passed, the school will continue to help students register before they graduate in June.

How does your state measure civics?

The thought that student success in social studies should be measured through the lens of civics is aligned with state and nationwide trend and standards.  

As of 2018, 19 states require some form of civics assessment as a graduation requirement. Since that date at least 4 other states, including Pennsylvania, have added a civics assessment to statewide requirements. PA joined this trend when Governor Wolf signed Act 35, requiring all school districts to develop an assessment of civic knowledge, and to publish their results annually. Like many states, PA allows schools to use all or parts of the US Citizenship Test as a proxy for civic preparedness; however, the National Council for Social Studies has cautioned that using this test to assess student mastery of civic skills is a dangerously inauthentic reduction of civic participation to a series of trivia questions. 

As states experiment with ways of measuring student preparation for civic life in ways that are both authentic and objective, a measurement such as voter registration is an important indicator. It is both grounded in the real world and simple to administer with fidelity in the classroom.

We still struggle to find ways to communicate our students’ learning in authentic and reliable ways. But at least when it comes to social studies instruction in the civics-focused Building 21 competency model, we have established a clear ruler that shows that our students are entering post-secondary life prepared for active and engaged citizenship. 

There can be no more meaningful measure of social studies success than that.

Shannon SalterFounding Social Studies Teacher, Building 21 Allentown
This guest blog was written by Shannon Salter. For more information about this curricular endeavor and school wide effort, please contact Shannon on Twitter or by email.