Opinion: Daily Journal

Training the Next Batch of Low-Information Voters

Results from the 2014 U.S. History, Geography, and Civics at Grade 8 tests were released this week.

These results suggest that only about one-quarter of our eighth-grade students possess some degree of civic literary and historical awareness. The other three-quarters will meet you at a polling place in a few years.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a project of the U.S. Department of Education, administers U.S. history, geography, and civics assessments once every four years. In 2014, a representative sample of over 29,000 eighth-grade students from across the nation took one of the three tests. Because it was a nationwide assessment, results for individual states are not available.

In short, there was no significant change in student performance compared to the dismal 2010 test results.

In U.S. History, only 18 percent of test-takers earned a “proficient” or “advanced” score. Nearly one-third of eighth-graders earned a “below basic” score, the lowest achievement level on the test.

Shockingly, only 27 percent of students provided satisfactory responses to two short-answer questions about the participation of African-Americans in the Civil War. Otherwise, 41 percent of students correctly answered that judicial review was the primary effect of the Marbury v. Madison U.S. Supreme Court decision. On the bright side, 61 percent of eighth-graders correctly identified the Louisiana Purchase.

Students fared somewhat better on the geography assessment. Still, only 27 percent reached the proficient or advanced levels.

Around two-thirds of students could use an atlas to identify a country (Somalia) located on the Horn of Africa. Well over half of the eighth-graders could use an atlas to determine that Lake Mead was the recreational lake created by the Hoover Dam. Yet, a mere 7 percent could write a coherent explanation of how the Brazil and Peru Currents, as represented on a detailed map of ocean currents, affect the temperature and rainfall of adjacent land areas.

Finally, 23 percent of students who took the civics test were proficient or above.

Do you want students who can identify a presidential responsibility not listed in Article II of the U.S. Constitution? Good luck.

Only 38 percent of students knew that “proposing an annual budget to Congress” is not a constitutional responsibility of the president. Apparently, few eighth-graders realized that the constitution places commanding the armed forces, granting pardons, and appointing Supreme Court justices within the purview of the presidency.

The question that worries me most, however, was one that required students to complete a “checks and balances chart.” For example, students were asked to write how either the executive or judicial branches have the power to limit the legislative branch’s power to make laws. Acceptable answers include presidential veto and judicial review. (Hence the importance of knowing about Marbury v. Madison.)

Only 7 percent of students correctly identified a power, checks on a power, or both. In the students’ defense, all three branches have done their part to dismantle the checks and balances system in recent years, so it is difficult for anyone to see the system work in practice.

The bottom line is that the average eighth-grade student, who will be eligible to vote in four or five years, appears to know little about U.S. history, geography, and civics. In some cases, high school courses make up for inadequate preparation in elementary and middle schools. In other cases, their ignorance persists through high school and into adulthood.

We expect adults to fulfill the duties of citizenship, but too many are ill equipped to do so.

Dr. Terry Stoops (@TerryStoops) is Director of Research and Education Studies for the John Locke Foundation.