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Alcott Elementary School 8th graders discuss their upcoming trip to Washington D.C. where they will see the inauguration and other highlights of the nation's capital, Wednesday, January 11, 2017.

The goal of civics education in Chicago Public Schools is to move beyond a focus on facts alone and toward helping students understand how they can be actors in shaping democracy. Here, Alcott Elementary School eighth graders were preparing for a trip to Washington D.C. in 2017.

James Foster

Illinois middle schoolers have to pass a civics ed class. How do you make sure it sticks?

To move on from eighth grade into high school in the state of Illinois, all public school students must pass a “Constitution test” on the U.S. and Illinois constitutions.

But, educators wondered, what’s the best way to ensure students actually learn something?

Traditionally, many Chicago teachers mostly quizzed students on facts about the constitutions and government. But after Illinois passed a law in 2019 requiring all middle schoolers to take a civics education course, Chicago Public Schools crafted a new civics education curriculum, moving beyond facts alone and toward helping students understand how they can be actors in shaping democracy. And because the state doesn’t mandate a single test design, many Chicago schools, along with other schools in Illinois, have ditched true-false or multiple choice formats.

This came after a similar change at the high school level, for which the state instituted a civics class requirement in 2015. It also dovetailed with a broader movement in education to emphasize critical thinking over regurgitation of facts.

CPS now discourages tests that rely on rote memorization. Instead, CPS offers sample exams to schools, including an argumentative essay on a constitutional issue and a short answer test to get students thinking critically about the constitution and its applications.

To give a sense of the difference between the traditional and new approaches, we cooked up versions of each.

The first is a 15-question true-false quiz (old), pulled from the book Our Federal and State Constitutions, which some Illinois teachers have used to make their constitution tests. (Author Steven Schmidt says teachers often supplement his book with materials that emphasize critical thinking.) The second version is a sample short-essay exam with answers provided (new), pulled from Chicago’s new civics curriculum, which launched in 2020.

Would you pass middle school civics? Take our quiz and find out. A passing score is generally 60% or higher — so nine out of 15. Good luck!


This story is part of “The Democracy Solutions Project,” a partnership among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government. Together, we’re examining critical issues facing our democracy in the run-up to the 2024 elections.

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