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Education Reporter

STILL AT RISK: What Students Don't Know, Even Now
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A report from Common Core, written by Frederick M. Hess


Senator Joseph McCarthy investigated people who protested the war in Vietnam, better known as the Second World War. Fortunately, that war was over before Christopher Columbus sailed to America; otherwise, we might have never experienced the Renaissance.

A new survey of 17-year-olds reveals that, to many, the paragraph above sounds only slightly strange. Almost 20% of 1,200 respondents to a national telephone survey do not know who our enemy was in World War II, and more than a quarter think Columbus sailed after 1750. Half do not know whom Sen. McCarthy investigated or what the Renaissance was.

It is easy to make light of such ignorance. In reality, however, a deep lack of knowledge is neither humorous nor trivial. What we know helps to determine how successful we are likely to be in life, and how many career paths we can choose from. It also affects our contribution as democratic citizens. Unfortunately, too many young Americans do not possess the kind of basic knowledge they need. When asked fundamental questions about U.S. history and culture, they score a D and exhibit stunning knowledge gaps. . . .

There are parents all over America for whom this is no surprise. They know that the focus of their child's school day is increasingly on preparing for basic skills tests, not on learning history or geography, reading literature, or participating in the arts. And their child's teacher often shares in their frustration. . . .

When students graduate without knowing what Brown v. Board of Education decided or who told them to "ask not what your country can do for you," they are being left behind in the worst way. Everyone's children deserve to receive a comprehensive, content-rich education in the liberal arts and sciences. Of course they must be able to read and compute. But they must also possess real knowledge about important things, knowledge of civics, biology, geography, art history, languages - the full range of subjects that comprise a complete education. Any reform idea that diminishes the ability of schools and teachers to provide students with such an education is narrowing children's futures, not expanding them.

Lynne Munson,
Executive Director, Common Core

What do 17-Year-Olds Know?

Overall, how did today's 17-year-olds fare? On the whole, students answered 67% of the 33 questions correctly, earning a cumulative grade of D. On the history section, they earned a C, answering 73% of questions correctly. When it came to literature, they earned an F, correctly answering just 57% of the questions.


In reference to the Federalist Papers, just half of the respondents answered that they were intended to gain ratification of the United States Constitution, whereas 26% said that they were intended to "establish a strong, free press in the colonies," 12% that they sought "to win foreign approval for the Revolutionary War," and 11% that they aimed to "confirm George Washington's election as the first president."

Two of the questions on which students performed most poorly asked respondents to identify the approximate period in which historic events took place, aiming to discover if young people have any remote grasp of when important events occurred. As it turns out, not many do. Fewer than 60% could identify the correct period in which World War I occurred, and less than half could do so for the Civil War. These questions did not ask for an exact year; they offered broad 50-year windows. Only 43% of respondents knew the Civil War was fought between 1850 and 1900. 30% thought it had taken place between 1800 and 1850, 21% that it happened before 1800, and 6% that it happened after 1900. Respondents were slightly less creative when it came to World War I, with 60% indicating that the war took place between 1900 and 1950, 13% placing it between 1850 and 1900, 9% between 1800 and 1850, 16% before 1800, and 2% after 1950 — placing it after the conclusion of the Second World War.

When asked when Columbus "sail[ed] for the New World," 74% of respondents answered that it was before 1750, while 13% thought it was between 1750 and 1800, and another 13% indicated it was since 1800. In other words, more than one-fourth of 17-year-olds believe that Columbus sailed after 1750 - more than 250 years after his actual crossing in 1492. (In an interesting bit of alternate history, 2% of respondents reported that Columbus set sail after 1950!)

Two questions asked about particular design features of the U.S. government. When asked to put a name to the notion "that each branch of the federal government should keep the other branches from becoming too strong," 80% correctly identified "checks and balances." The source of "the guarantee of freedom of speech and religion" in American life was correctly identified as the Bill of Rights by 67%. Freedom of speech and religion are foundational principles in American culture, but a third of respondents haven't a clue where these freedoms originate.


When it came to George Orwell's classic 1984, 21% thought it was a novel about the destruction of the human race through nuclear war, and 18% thought that it was about time travel. It is indeed ironic that 17-year-olds know so little about 1984 that many think it a backward-looking tale about time travel rather than a future-oriented work of dystopian fiction. Students unfamiliar with Orwell's oeuvre or the history that produced it will be hard-put to understand public debates that reference "big brother," much less the evocation of twentieth-century experiences with communism and totalitarianism.

Just 45% knew that Oedipus is the character in an ancient Greek play who "unknowingly killed his father and married his mother," with more than half of the respondents naming either Agamemnon, Orestes, or Prometheus.

One question addressed the Bible. Just 50% of respondents correctly identified Job as known for his patience in the face of suffering. Apparently, and somewhat incomprehensibly, 20% think that "prophetic ability" is the point being made when they hear references to the trials of Job.

Six of the eleven literature questions dealt with novels. Just 41% could identify the plot of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Only 57% knew that Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities took place during the French Revolution, with nearly half of respondents incorrectly stating that it took place during the Crimean War, War of the Roses, or English Civil War.

Respondents fared best when asked to identify the plot of Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, for which 79% correctly identified the theme. The literature question on which respondents fared second best asked them to identify the novel that "helped the anti-slavery movement by depicting the evils of slavery." 77% correctly identified Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Worth noting is the intriguing result that in the cases of both history and literature, respondents posted their best scores on questions deeply intertwined with the history of American race relations.


The problems that the above results pose for civic discourse are neither murky nor obscure. One need not search far to find attacks on anti-terrorism measures that draw upon imagery from 1984 or that use the term "Orwellian." Pundits, novelists, and journalists routinely wield references to Job or Oedipus in making points about the trials of a public figure or the complexities of familial relationships. High school graduates unacquainted with these terms are handicapped when it comes to engaging in such public debates, perhaps recognizing the terms and phrases but lacking comprehension of the assumptions and associations that lend them meaning. What's worse is that these students lack the knowledge and wisdom that historical information provides and that artistic works contain.

In summarizing the results of the 1986 A Nation at Risk report, Ravitch and Finn concluded that "the glass is almost half empty. . . . We cannot tell from a 'snapshot' assessment of this kind whether today's students know more or less about history and literature than their predecessors of ten, twenty, or fifty years ago. We do conclude, however, that they do not know enough." More than twenty years later, it is safe to say that the story remains disheartening.

Excerpts from this report reprinted with permission from Common Core.

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