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Education Reporter

ISI Study Predicts: Coming Crisis in Citizenship

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A recently released report from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's American Civic Literacy Program showed that American college seniors did just 1.5% better on a test of basic civic knowledge than college freshmen. The 60-question test covered American history and government, America in relation to the rest of the world, and the market economy. (See page 3 for the executive summary.)

The full report quotes Abraham Lincoln on the subject of civic knowledge: "That every man may receive at least, a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to . . . appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance." The study reveals that many college seniors are not receiving even a moderate education in the subjects tested.

Fewer than half of seniors could correctly identify the century of the founding of Jamestown. Fewer than half knew that the Bill of Rights explicitly prohibits the establishment of an official national religion. The significance of the battle of Yorktown, federalism, and NATO similarly evaded more than half of college seniors. Fewer than one quarter of seniors correctly answered questions on the Monroe Doctrine, traditional just war criteria, or monetary policy.

To ensure the test was not too hard, ISI included six questions from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Students actually fared worse on the NAEP questions than they did on the questions ISI prepared specifically for the test.

Despite the alarming results, the ISI study does not mean that students don't care about American history and institutions. They did not complain that the test was too hard, ISI reports. Instead, they "commonly expressed dismay that their college education had not prepared them better. According to Heather Mills, Field Supervisor for U Conn DPP [which conducted the study], students commonly said: 'I felt like I should have known this . . . I should have known it.' " 41% said they were dissatisfied with their college program.

ISI found that students who knew more about civics were much more likely to vote and to participate in other citizenship activities. 90% of seniors at Colorado State University, the 2nd-ranked school in civics learning, had voted at least once. In contrast, just 38% of all 22-year olds voted in the 2000 presidential election, and only 33% of all those between the ages of 18 and 22 voted.

There were correlations between civics classes in the schools' curricula and civic knowledge, and between civics classes offered and citizenship activities. ISI recommends that universities require more coursework in history, political science, economics and associated disciplines. ISI also recommended that stewards of higher education and parents, as well as students look closely into the quality of civic education in colleges, and that colleges build centers to promote the teaching of civic knowledge.

Since school ranking and students' knowledge in these subject areas do not correlate - and in fact, are sometimes inversely proportional - it is especially important for students and parents to investigate the amount and quality of civic education each university offers.

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