Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch
The latest national sampling of what students know and understand about United States history yielded an answer in line with numerous surveys done by both governmental and independent authorities in recent years:
Results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) administered in 2010 and released last Tuesday show that only about one-quarter of students scored at or above proficient in their grasp of U.S. history. The worst performance was by the high school seniors, only 12 percent of whom reached proficiency, or a level of solid achievement.
Perhaps even more alarming was the finding that more than half of high school seniors could not even attain the barebones level of basic, meaning a fragmentary knowledge of the subject.
Meanwhile, only 1 percent of students nationally demonstrated an advanced knowledge of American history. Shouldn’t this scarcity of excellence be as much a concern as the surplus of ignorance?
Virginia supplies some welcome good news on this front, apart from the dismal NAEP results.
Last month in Washington, D.C., a team of students from Richmond’s Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies won first place nationally in the 24th annual scholastic competition sponsored by We the People: The Citizens and the Constitution.
Over a three-day period, the Maggie Walker students demonstrated their knowledge of the U.S. Constitution by answering such questions as this one: “Recently, an American scholar claimed that the Magna Carta is not just a cultural icon but a durable political text. Do you agree or disagree? What evidence can you cite to support your position?”
Another hearing query asked the students to dissect James Madison’s warning in Federalist 48 about the “encroaching nature” of power and how the system of checks and balances is working as a counterweight.
The winning Richmond team displayed mastery over concepts crucial to American democracy far surpassing in complexity the kinds of skills asked for on the national NAEP test. Here are two examples of tasks NAEP considered advanced: “Name two actions citizens can take to encourage Congress to pass a law” (Grade 8). “Compare the citizenship requirements of the U.S. to other countries” (Grade 12).
Just a month earlier, the release of NAEP’s latest report card on civics, which has much to do with the ability to put the lessons of history into civic practice, showed comparable results.
Especially concerning were the gaps on both exams between the performance of white children and that of black or Latino students. In civics, almost one-half of black eighth-graders (47 percent) and an astounding 62 percent of black 12th-graders were below basic. For Hispanics, the corresponding numbers were 44 percent and 50 percent.
That means that half or more of these minority kids were not adequately prepared to identify a right protected by the First Amendment or recognize that the U.S. Constitution proclaims that government’s authority is based on the people’s consent.
Yet, lack of adequate knowledge of history and civics cuts across lines of race, class and even age. A recent Newsweek survey found that almost four in 10 adult Americans could not pass the simple test of civic knowledge required of immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship.
What can be done to improve these dire results? Contributing factors seem to include the de-emphasizing of U.S. history in public schools, slipping state history content standards, and state teacher-certification requirements that often approve social studies teachers with little or no formal history training. Even Virginia’s highly regarded Standards of Learning in U.S. history have drawn criticism for backsliding in recent years.
There is much evidence to suggest that American democracy will continue to face new and unpredictable threats in the decades to come. Can representative democracy survive with only a tiny percentage of the population knowing the principles of constitutionalism and their application in everyday life?
The spreading turbulence in a complicated world suggests that it would not be a good idea to count on that indefinitely, and that makers of policy and law therefore should find ways to inspire far more students to become proficient, and even advanced, in their grasp of history and civics.
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