Today, 237 years ago, this country declared its independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776 and thus the Declaration of Independence was signed. How do we know this? Most of us were taught it in school. The writer of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, understood that a healthy republic would necessitate an educated citizenry, one that understood its nation’s history, its major institutions, and its founding values. Another signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, argued “there is but one method of rendering a republican form of government durable, and that is by disseminating the seeds of virtue and knowledge through education.” Jefferson and Rush’s wisdom has been long forgotten by some.
The national exams in civics, U.S. history and geography, unlike state standard exams, which fluctuate, are administered uniformly across the nation, allowing education observers to get a stronger picture of student growth over time. These tests are presently the only impartial benchmark of whether students are learning basic American history and the essential skills required to be respectable citizens.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, part of the U.S. Department of Education, quoting the federal sequester, has indefinitely suspended national exams in civics, U.S. history and geography for fourth and 12th graders, while choosing to institute new national exams in computer literacy. Yes, you did read that correctly. While the exam will still be administered to eighth-graders, the majority of what is tested on these exams is taught at the high school level.
This would not be the first time that history and civics exams have been threatened. Back in 2004, educators and members of Congress interceded when the civics exam was almost cancelled. The NAEP’s governing board agreed to an exam every four years- an arrangement which is now being shattered.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress lost $6.8 million to national budget cuts under “sequestration.” Because of the loss, officials assert the exam cuts are essential. To make matters worse, the NAEP board is also considering a new multimillion-dollar assessment for Technology and Engineering Literacy. It will be applied nationally next year, in lieu of the history and civics exams.
A Lack of Knowledge
According to the 2010 civics assessment, fewer than half of eighth-graders surveyed knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights, and only 1 in 10 had understanding of the system of checks and balance. In 2006, two-thirds of students scored below proficiency. Just a third of eighth-graders surveyed could identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Less than a fifth of high school seniors could explain how citizen involvement aids democracy. This meager performance might have to do with the declining amount of time assigned to civics and history. In 2006, 72 percent of 12th graders said they studied the Constitution; that rate fell to 67 percent in 2010. Currently only eight states test their students on American government or civics.
Upon hearing these statistics, I was curious about my eighth-grade brother’s civic knowledge, or lack thereof. In four years, my brother will be eligible to vote for the next leader of the free world, but cannot name the three branches of the United States government. I have seen my eighth-grade brother efficiently navigate a search engine, but he is unaware of how many amendments make up the U.S. Constitution. He is learning pre-calculus in school, but he cannot name what branch of government signs a bill into law.
In 2001, the NAEP released an article describing eighth-graders performance on 37 of the 151 questions from the eighth-grade assessment. I would venture to say today’s eighth-graders would not do as well answering these same questions, and in fact, students performed worse on the 2010 U.S. history assessment than they did on any other NAEP test.
Young people are voting at higher rates than ever before and we should be doing a much more comprehensive job of honoring the civic undertaking that was the motive for their founding. American education systems shape the outlooks and experiences of more citizens than any other establishment. To contribute fully in our democracy, students need to comprehend our government, our history, and our laws.
On this Independence Day, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush would be very dissatisfied with our current civics recession.