For all that college students ran around yelling “U.S.A.” on hearing about the death of Osama Bin Laden, it seems that American students lack a solid knowledge of what it means to be an American, as far as knowing what the purpose of the Bill of Rights is. The New York Times reports that test results released by the Department of Education yesterday show that, when it comes to civics education, American students need a thorough refresher.
Three-quarters of high school seniors who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress were not able to identify
- the effects of American foreign policy on other nations
- what powers are granted to Congress by the Constitution
Fewer than half of American eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill or Rights, and only one-tenth understood what the checks and balances among the legislative, executive and judicial branches are.
You can see some of the questions on the text via EdWeek.
Former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor says that “Today’s NAEP results confirm that we have a crisis on our hands when it comes to civics education.” Last year, O’Connor founded icivics.org, a non-profit to teach students about civics using the resources of the Internet. The executive director of the Center for Civic Education, a non-profit in California, Charles N. Quigley, issued an even stronger statement:
“The results confirm an alarming and continuing trend that civics in America is in decline. During the past decade or so, educational policy and practice appear to have focused more and more upon developing the worker at the expense of developing the citizen.”
Average fourth-grade scores on the test’s 300-point scale rose slightly since the exam was last administered, in 2006, to 157 from 154. Average eighth-grade scores were virtually unchanged at 151. The scores of high school seniors — students who are either eligible to vote or about to be — dropped to 148 from 151. Those scores mean that about a quarter of 4th- and 12th-grade students, and about one-fifth of 8th graders, ranked at the proficient or advanced levels.
The gap between Hispanic and non-Hispanic students on the test did shrink, with a 23-point gap between their scores; in 2006, the gap was 23 points. The achievement gap between blacks and whites remained the same (25 points at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels and 29 points among high school seniors).
Quite disturbingly, a smaller proportion of fourth and eighth graders showed proficiency in civics than in any other subject the federal government has tested since 2005 with the exception of history, which is “American students’ worst subject.”
Before we start pointing the finger at social studies teachers, a remark from Justice O’Connor bears considering:
“We face difficult challenges at home and abroad. Meanwhile, divisive rhetoric and a culture of sound bites threaten to drown out rational dialogue and debate. We cannot afford to continue to neglect the preparation of future generations for active and informed citizenship.”
How much can be the national discourse about politics and history, about “what the US is,” be criticized for these results? How can we get students to read and think about the Bill of Rights and the Constitution? Or has the teaching of civics in the US become not only too rhetorical and “sound bite-ized,” but too ideological?
It’s enough to make me nostalgic for good old Bill, from this 1975 Schoolhouse Rock segment (if it’s not too “sound bite-ized”).
Photo of the Constitution in the National Archives by Mr. T in DC.