Fewer Than 50% of 8th Graders Know What the Bill of Rights Is (VIDEO)

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.”

As summarized in the New York Times, here’s the results of the test, which is known as the “nation’s report card”  and is administered to 27,000 4th-, 8th- and 12th-grade students last year

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.”

Not good.

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.


Ludwig Vonmises
frank kelleher6 years ago

Every liberal I know would cluck their tongue and nod in sympathy with all the hand wringing about something which has been obvious for decades. A century actually. Roughly coinciding with the creation of the Federal Reserve and imposition of an income tax in order to redistribute wealth from evil rich to noble poor. Conservatives are no better. Few from either group would be able to cite more than a very few provisions of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Federalism? Ha! What's that? Far left liberals like to pretend that the Constitution condoned slavery which is absurd. It took the issue off the table for the 20 years following ratification. This was the only way to bring in enough support for final passage. This says to me that even the southern legislatures of the time, in voting for ratification, probably sensed that their "peculiar institution" would soon be passing into history. When the economics of slavery changed, so did its place in southern heritage. The Constitiution is as near perfect as something man made can be. But 100 years of liberal fine tuning in a failed attempt to achieve some sort of nebulous, universal equality, have rendered it near irrelevant.

jane richmond
jane richmond6 years ago

Great educational system we have here.

KrassiAWAY B.
Krasimira B6 years ago

Noted with interest.

Duncan O'neil
Duncan O'neil6 years ago

Somebody is feeding you lies! In the past 30 - 40 years the funding for education has DOUBLED! What did we get for ALL this money!? Nothing! Attainment levels for students remained flat.
I would consider that as evidence that money is not the solution.

"When the pigs of the gop for decades have been cutting education funding, you get ignorant people warming chairs in school chairs and not learning anything, what did you expect? "

Duncan O'neil
Duncan O'neil6 years ago

If the military were as effective as the schools, you might have an argument. Data shows that on average the teaching system fails half the students. More than that the further kids "progress" in school the less able they become. Small class size is not a prerequisite to learning!

"Stop picking on the public schools, dammit! Use some of the bloated military $ for smaller class size."

Duncan O'neil
Duncan O'neil6 years ago

But according to the teacher unions all we need do is to put more money into the schools & somehow this problem will solve itself!

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Lee S.
Lee S.6 years ago

If you read the Constitution it is very clear that the government we have today far exceeds what the founding fathers had in mind. Government is way too big, too intrusive, wasteful and overspends.

The fed government is to provide basic protections and freedoms..instead they are taking away our freedoms one by one and stripping our Constitution.

Now Obama supposedly taught the constitution. He took an oath to uphold and defend it but has not. I'm appalled that so many congress members and US Citizens don't have a problem with that.

One day you will all wake up to learn you can't break wind without the government...there will be so few decisions you can make the government will make them all for you and you will keep your mouth shut or die. That's how it will be.
When the muslims take over all the gays and lesbians will be targets...whoa, you think they were with conservatives...i don't know of one conservative who would advocate killing someone just b/c they are gay/lebians,

Shar F.
Sharon F6 years ago

If you ask the question of the 535 in the US Congress and all those in the 50 state legislatures, the statistic may well be the same.

Stop picking on the public schools, dammit! Use some of the bloated military $ for smaller class size.

Michael M.
Michael M6 years ago

When the pigs of the gop for decades have been cutting education funding, you get ignorant people warming chairs in school chairs and not learning anything, what did you expect?