Third of high school seniors fail to grasp U.S. government role

Test results lead to call for better civics education


One-third of the country's high school seniors do not understand the fundamentals of American government, according to results of a national test administered by the Education Department.

The tests showed that 26 percent of high school seniors had "proficient" knowledge of the workings of the government. And most of those polled, 65 percent, were defined as "at or above" a basic level. But 35 percent were below the minimum requirement.

The test was part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the nation's report card.

Diane Ravitch, a member of the governing board that designed the test and an education official in President George Bush's administration, said the results were "deeply troubling" and called for a strengthening of civics curriculum. "Only 9 percent of the kids were able to give two reasons why it is important for citizens to be involved in a democratic society," said Ravitch of a question posed to high school seniors. "These are questions where you would expect voters to know how to answer."

Education Secretary Richard W. Riley said he was pleased that 26 percent reached proficiency, given widespread voter apathy and adult ignorance of the democratic process. He called the results "an opportunity for renewal and improvement" and said the department would increase funds for civics education to $10 million from $4.4 million.

The tests included multiple choice and answers that had to be written out. They were conducted last year with nationally representative samples of 22,000 fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders in public and private schools.

The questions, even critics conceded, were not easy. One question, with no options listed to choose from, asked high school seniors to list two ways the American system of government is designed to prevent "absolute arbitrary power" and "governing without settled laws."

At the eighth-grade level, 81 percent identified the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as someone who was concerned about the injustice of segregation laws.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.