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High-School Students’ Civic Knowledge Continues to Fall



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According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores released last week, American eighth-graders are stagnant and twelfth-graders are regressing in their knowledge of U.S. government and democracy. The silver lining is that fourth-graders’ scores have improved since 2006.

Here are a few twelfth-grade-level questions and the results:

“A witness’ refusal to answer whether or not he is a Communist on the ground that his answer would tend to incriminate him is the most positive proof obtainable that the witness is a Communist.”

— Senator Joseph McCarthy, 1953

In the speech above, Joseph McCarthy seems to ignore constitutional rights granted by the

  1. First Amendment
  2. Second Amendment
  3. Fourth Amendment
  4. Fifth Amendment

Correct: 38 percent

Incorrect: 61 percent

What is one responsibility that modern Presidents have that is NOT described in the Constitution?

  1. Commanding the armed forces
  2. Proposing an annual budget to Congress
  3. Appointing Supreme Court justices
  4. Granting pardons

Correct: 44 percent

Incorrect: 55 percent

People who claim that lobbying is a positive force in American politics often argue that lobbyists play an important role by

  1. supplying members of Congress with information and helping to draft legislation
  2. giving Supreme Court justices information they need to make decisions in difficult cases
  3. giving everybody equal power in the political process
  4. limiting access to public officials

Correct: 34 percent

Incorrect: 63 percent

There are some bright spots among the results — some questions were answered correctly by upward of 70 percent of students. But many of the easier questions aren’t really government-related at all; they are essentially reading-comprehension questions. They provide a quote or a picture and ask the students to interpret it. When asked straight questions about the machinations of government, the results aren’t pretty. For instance, in 2006, 50 percent of the students surveyed couldn’t recognize that federal law takes precedence when there is a conflict between federal and state laws.

A recent study by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (my outfit) gives us a clue as to why students may not be learning the basics: Schools are becoming laboratories for indoctrinating students with special-interest talking points. For instance, in Wisconsin, only 26 percent of school districts require students to take a course in economics; only 25 percent require a course in personal finance. Yet schools statewide are required to teach the history of organized labor to each and every student.

A survey of Wisconsin high-school students by the report’s author demonstrates the damage this imbalance can do. At a time when bad mortgage-lending practices have sent the economy spinning out of control, most Wisconsin student have no idea what the terms gross domestic product or inflation mean, do not understand basic theories of supply and demand, and think the function of an entrepreneur is to tell the government which new products to produce.

As Paul Ryan and others have pointed out, the answer to the nation’s untenable debt and deficit is to give consumers more informed choices. Clearly, it’s the “informed” part that needs some work.

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.



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