Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The U.S. Is In Trouble - Students Don't Know Basic Civics

Students in Oklahoma were given a basic civics survey and only around 3% could pass:

Last month OCPA commissioned a national research firm, Strategic Vision, to determine Oklahoma public high-school students' level of basic civic knowledge. The firm's surveys have been used by Time, Newsweek, and USA Today, and National Journal's "Hotline" has cited them as some of the most accurate in the country. The margin of error for this particular survey is plus/minus three percent.

Ten questions, chosen at random, were drawn from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) item bank, which consists of 100 questions given to candidates for United States citizenship. The longstanding practice has been for candidates for citizenship to take a test on 10 of these items. A minimum of six correct answers is required to pass. Recently, the USCIS had 6,000 citizenship applicants pilot a newer version of this test. The agency reported a 92.4 percent passing rate among citizenship applicants on the first try.

Of course, immigrants have had an opportunity to study for the test-a distinct advantage-so we might not necessarily expect a 92 percent passing rate from Oklahoma's public high-school students.
On the other hand, most high-school students have the advantage of having lived in the United States their entire lives. Moreover, they have benefited from tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars being spent for their educations. Many immigrants seeking citizenship, meanwhile, often arrive penniless and must educate themselves on America's history and government.

After seeing the questions for yourself, you the reader can judge whether a 92 percent passing rate is a reasonable expectation for Oklahoma's high-school students. Unfortunately, Oklahoma high-school students scored alarmingly low on the test, passing at a rate of only 2.8 percent. That is not a misprint.

Think this is isolated to Oklahoma?

Sadly, that result does not come as complete surprise. When the same survey was done recently in Arizona, only 3.5 percent of Arizona's high-school students passed the test.


ch555x said...

Granted I'm in my 30s and not an expert on civics, but that's atrocious...even for a non-patriot as myself!

redante said...

I had to take the USCIS citizenship exam to get my American citizenship. It wasn't that difficult. It is disheartening to me to know most Americans would totally fail this test which is pretty much basic entry-level civics. I would imagine if most American students don't know their entry-level civics, they likely less aware of more complex and radical interpretations of US history and society like the works of Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn. Not good for a democratic society where The People are supposed to take an active role in governance and public affairs.

Andre said...

AI, you're not being fair here. The question "What is the supreme law of the land?" is a trick question. I mean, we all know the REAL answer to Oklahomans is "The Bible."

Plus, I didn't see the question stating "President Obama is a ___"

a. Secret Muslim from Kenya who is trying to destroy America

b. a fascist, socialist, Nazi who wants old people dead

c. a monkey

d. all the above.

Add those questions to the test and I'm sure scores would sky rocket.

J.R. LeMar said...

Full disclosure: My mind totally blanked on #2. And for #8 I thought that the answer was 4 OR 6. I could have sworn that some states have 4-year Senate terms while others have 6-year terms. But, still, I would have passed the test with 8 correct. I would like to see what other questions get asked, and see how many of those I'd know.

However, while I do understand the general point of this blog, and the article inspired by it, that there IS a big problem with eduction in this country, part of me also can't take this another way, almost sort of pretentious. "Look @ how stupid Americans are becoming!"

But let's get real, how much of this info is essential to everyday life? Believe me, I understand the importance of having an informed electorate, and all that, so I'm not trying to knock education (which I acknowledge is sorely lacking in this country), but on a daily basis, how is this knowledge going to affect the average citizen?

Unless you're specifically attempting a career in politics or law, knowing exactly how many judges on the Supreme Court or that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence isn't going to have anything to do with paying your bills. I'm just saying, I was forced to study a LOT of stuff in school that have nothing to do with how I live now, and was, in retrospect, a complete waste of time.

I knew how many judges are on the Supreme Court, and I can even name all of them, but that's not going to have anything to do with whether or not I can get up on time tomorrow, go to my job, and work for 8 hours.

When I applied for my first job in a warehouse @ a shipping company, the application didn't ask about King Henry VIII, but I remember taking tests about him in 9th grade. For what?

When my sinks clogs and have to hire a plumber, and I don't care if he knows how many years our Senator's term is, I just want to know if he can fix my pipes.

I want to know how many of those kids who failed this civics test can pass a test about balancing a checkbook, understanding the interest rates on credit cards, paying utility bills on time, knowing how to behave @ work, and things like that. Actual life skills that they're going to need in order to function as productive members of society.

Brian said...


#1. An informed electorate is important (essential) for a properly functioning Democracy (although the U.S. is not a true pure representative Democracy). It would be fine if this were the old USSR, or China.

A poorly informed citizenry leads to situations where George W. Bush's are elected President...and where Sarah Palin's get the VP nomination and can almost win the election...and where Tea Party protesters, especially poor, working class and lower middle class White Southerners fight against their own best interests.

#2. It's important to know history because it provides a point of reference...a context. If you don't know (at least generally understand) the Bill of Rights.... then you don't know what rights you have as an individual.

It's important to know how your government works, even though the benefits from the current system are essentially out of reach of the average citizen... the benefits currently go to the rich and powerful....to the corporate interests and special interests groups.

But the point is... there may come a time when you might need to take advantage of your fundamental rights.... but you will only be able to do so if you know that those rights even exist and what those rights are.

It's as essential as knowing your ABC's in my opinion.

People who lack this kind of essential information can be taken advantage of.

And if people don't know this basic information, it gives at least some indication about what other basic essential information they don't know. If they don't know this.... there's probably a whole lot more that they don't know. And what does it say about the Public school system in this Country?

This (and other stories...since I have posted similar reports) should sound the alarm for the Country to correct this problem. Every 6th grader should be required to know this stuff, PERIOD.

J.R. LeMar said...

I tried to make it clear that I get all that. But do you not also see my point?

Brian said...

"But do you not also see my point?"

I do....

But I mostly felt that way in school about advanced math or chemistry (#$#$% that I knew I probably wouldn't use in daily life).

But on the other hand.... the material from this survey is much more relevant to our very existence as Americans. It's more relevant to the core of who we are.

But yes I do get your point and I felt that way in High School about a lot of things.... believe me.

I took a lot of practical courses...and wondered why real-life classes were not offered more often.

We just have different ideas about what a standard American curriculum should look like.

I believe a basic education in this Country should be heavy on Civics, current events, American history, American politics, World history, International politics, World culture/religion, World Affairs, Geography, languages, Social Sciences/Social studies, reading/writing, and personal finance. This should be the core that everything else should be built around. Students should be required to take multiple courses in each area before they can graduate....AND should be tested before graduation on basic civics aptitude. This should be the case both for High school and college (at least the first 2 years).

Currently these courses are only a tiny part of basic curriculum's or are treated as electives.

Andre said...

AI, I was obviously being very tongue-in-cheek with my initial response. But I think JR strikes some important points. Your counter was well-thought out as well, but I think JR speaks to the bigger issue. Somewhere down the road, we have become less of a society of learners and more of a society of workers. So it's only natural that philosophy and pedagogy has taken a backseat to career development. True, America is getting dumber in some respects (i.e. the slow death of educational shows in favor of mindless drivel in music and entertainment). But to suggest that Bush's election, Palin's stardom, or any number of other ensuing nonsensical political events was the product of understand civics is a stretch. Civics may teach kids policies...but it doesn't teach them politics. They may learn about term limits, but textbooks don't teach them about the day to day activities of Congressional members. Civics teaches students about how a bill becomes a law, but it doesn't teach about all the politics, scamming, and other spectacles that go on. When pundits and talking heads are trying to promote a certain agenda, they don't go after a person's knowledge of civics...they go after their emotions, fears, and paranoia.

It wasn't just the civically ignorant who voted for Bush. In that number - most assuredly - were professors, Constitutional scholars, and a host of otherwise intelligent people. The base? Probably not as much. But then again, I suspect that even many people who voted for Obama might not have done particularly well on this survey either.

Andre said...

Another typo in my comments. I MEANT to say:

"...But to suggest that Bush's election, Palin's stardom, or any number of other ensuing nonsensical political events was the product of a lack of understanding in civics is a stretch."

I don't know how I mess that one up. I'm really starting to suspect that my fingertips and my brain work at different speeds.

J.R. LeMar said...

Right, that's why I stressed that I agree this is a problem, but the more immediate problem that I see, day to day, is not the lack of understanding of civics, but rather the lack of understand of COMMON SENSE. @ my job I deal with a lot of younger dudes, who we have coming through our warehouse as temps, & a lot of these guys are just stupid. It's not about whether or not they can name their congressman or know who sits on the city council of their city, they don't even know to come in on time everyday. 8 minutes late is not cool. Guys are cashing their checks @ check-cashing places, because they say it's quicker than going to the bank, they don't seem to comprehend that they're wasting money on the extra fee that the check-cashing place takes out. Blowing all their cash on gold chains or big speakers for their car. I have to explain every single little thing @ the job, because they're just not capable of thinking on their own, and figuring out things that should be obvious. It's the kind of thing that really frustrates me all the time, and THAT is what I'm really worried about.

KSinMA said...

I wouldn't worry too much about this civics "test"-- it was actually a phone survey, conducted by a phone survey company, not an academic testing company. Students were called at home, presumably with no warning (who knows at what hour of the day or night?). Most students pass the Oklahoma NCLB Social Studies tests, and that's much more reliable information.

redante said...

Perhaps a bit off topic but it is related. More than just the civics score I think a larger problem is that most people are unaware of how ordinary, working people who aren't professional politicians can influence politics and be part of the process on making important decisions by people in power. I mean I consider myself pretty well-informed but other than voting in local elections and blogging about political issues, I am not aware of many other means available to me as a citizen to be part of the process.

However, I am just starting to learn that political parties have precincts and a good way to be involved would be to become a precinct officer for your local party. Enough like-minded people doing the same thing nationwide has the potential to influence the policies of the national party. Caveat -- you must register as a member of that political party.

My point is such strategies are NOT common knowledge. And they should be. You shouldn't have to have a PhD in political science to understand the way things really work and you shouldn't need to have any credentials other than being an active, engaged citizen to participate.