Tuesday, September 16, 2014 · 11:29 a.m.

Report examines changes to civics education

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A new requirement for civics education is that students work to come up with solutions to real world problems. (Photo: MGNOnline)

Soon, Tennessee students will have to apply lessons learned about civics in the classroom to real world situations—a major departure from the past. 

In 2012, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law requiring school districts to assess students' civic knowledge at least once in fourth through eighth grades and again in high school. A new report from the comptroller's office suggests that the legislation is important because it is the first time the state has required an assessment for civics education. 

The new assessments, which will begin this school year, differ from other state-mandated assessments in two respects: one, they will not be standardized tests developed by vendors according to state-determined specifications but instead will be developed and implemented by individual school districts; and two, they will be project-based, which means they are a hands-on, practical approach to learning. 

Project-based assessments differ from the multiple-choice format of most standardized testing in that student-driven projects are both central to the curriculum and rooted in real life situations, involving rather complex tasks based on challenging questions or problems. Students work to develop solutions that could be used to address the issue they are studying. 

An example is Project Citizen, a program already in use in some Tennessee schools. In this program, students work to identify problems in their communities, then research the problems and develop solutions in the form of public policies. Finally, students petition local or state authorities to adopt those policies. 

The comptroller's report cites research that suggests that project-based approaches in the classroom result in more in-depth learning and better performance on complex tasks, outcomes that align with Tennessee's recent education reform efforts. 

The report also provides an overview of the evolution of civics instruction in U.S. public schools, how civics is taught and tested in Tennessee schools, and the implementation of the project-based assessments for civics in Tennessee. 

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