Archive for Thursday, December 4, 2008

Return on investment not shown in test results

December 4, 2008

With college tuition continuing to rise at almost double the rate of inflation, one would like to think we’d be getting more bang for the buck, so to speak.

Unfortunately, according to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Americans in general are alarmingly uninformed about our Constitution, the basic functions of our government, key texts in our national history and the free market economy.

Of 2,508 Americans who took ISI’s civic literacy test, only 29 percent received a passing grade. The test consists of 33 questions designed to measure knowledge of America’s founding principles, political history, international relations and market economy. The average score on the test this year was 49 percent.

The results are enough to make you weep:

• Less than half can name all three branches of government – legislative, executive and judicial.

• A scant 21 percent knew that the phrase, “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” comes from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

• Although Congress has voted to approve foreign wars twice in the last eight years, only 53 percent know that the power to declare wars belongs to the Congress. Almost 40 percent erroneously gave that power to the president.

• Only 55 percent know that Congress shares authority over U.S. foreign policy with the president. Almost one-fourth said Congress shares this power with the United Nations.

• Only 27 percent know that the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits establishing an official religion.

• Fewer than one in five know that the phrase, “a wall of separation” between church and state comes from a letter by Thomas Jefferson. Almost half believed, incorrectly, that it was in the Constitution.

The questions come from several sources. Six are from the naturalization exams given to those who wish to become new citizens. Nine come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests that the U.S. Department of Education uses to assess high school seniors. Three came from an “American History 101” exam posted online by Two were developed especially for the survey and the rest were drawn from ISI’s previous civic literacy tests.

In addition to the civic literacy test, the survey also asked about respondents’ public philosophy and civic behavior, as well as demographics.

Survey respondents were chosen with a national random-digit-dial sampling design. The respondents, all adults, were interviewed by telephone from April 17 to May 10, 2008.

The margin of error for the sample of 2,508 adults is +/- 2.0 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence. Sampling error is higher when reporting on subgroups such as men, women, college graduates, etc.

But to get back to the survey, you’d think that people with a college degree would do better than those without one, wouldn’t you? Sadly, not by much. The average score of those with a bachelor’s degree was 57 percent – still an F even though it was slightly better than the 44 percent scored by those with a high school diploma.

Forty percent of those with a bachelor’s degree did not know business profit equals revenue minus expenses. Only 54 percent correctly defined free enterprise as a system in which individuals create, exchange and control goods and services.

The survey also showed that people who had held elected office scored worse than the general public. Officeholders had a failure rate of 74 percent compared to 71 percent of those who hadn’t held public office, and were less likely than other respondents to correctly answer 29 of the 33 test questions.

America spends a lot of money on education. Much of the justification for that expense has always been that education produces good, informed citizens. Surveys like this one tend to call that into question.

To read more — or, to take the test yourself — go to


Jason Bailey 5 years, 4 months ago

Just took the 30 out of 33 right so that makes me feel better to comment on this editorial.

Everything I learned about Civics and American History, I learned on my own outside of the classroom. In High School I only had one semester (again, 1 SEMESTER) of Civics. There was no American History beyond a 1-month module in a 1 year history class.

In College, I chose to take World History which did absolutely nothing to help me understand my nation. I gained an intimate understanding of why World War I started (all of the Alliances) and what led to WWII (the repressive Treaty of Versailles) but nothing about my country.

I've been a voracious consumer of all things American History related in my post-college years and even have the Constitution app installed on my iPhone for reference (is that sad?). This is not the norm and we cannot assume that our kids are going to have a natural propensity to learn about our nation's history on their own as I did. We must teach it in our classes; not just the rote dates and places junk, that's useless, but rather the concepts of our government and how we got to where we're at today (e.g., Hamilton starting the Fed Banking system, Jefferson opposing Federalism, how Jackson instituted the concept of a President's cabinet, how elections are actually decided, how the government gained the ability to tax citizens via income tax, etc.) All of this would be very enlightening to a student who believes that the Colonials paid income taxes to the Fed govt, that Social Security was started by the Founding Fathers, or that Washington DC has always been our nation's capital.

As a nation, we are spiraling towards socialism (IMO) due largely to the fact that our citizens believe the government was originally setup to "take care of us". It's the lack of fundamental understanding of our nation's history and basic operation that is leading to bad decisions in elections and it's certainly a truth that many in government rely on to ensure they can push through their programs.


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