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Bad Student Scores in History and Civics Flatten the Wrong Curve (Washington Examiner) April 25, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

Thanks to the COVID-19 crisis, the expression “flattening the curve” has entered our vocabulary. We understand that the major public health objective is to reduce the spread of the disease so that our healthcare system is not overwhelmed.

It turns out that some curves need to be flattened, but others do not. I am sorry to report that one important curve that was already flat just got flatter, but we should not be happy about it. If possible, our children’s understanding of U.S. history and civics is reportedly now even worse.

This week, the Department of Education released the latest student test scores on eighth-graders’ understanding of U.S. history and government. There was essentially no change in student scores in civics, with a pitiful 24% of eighth-graders testing “proficient” in that field. Meanwhile, proficiency in U.S. history dropped by more than 15% from the last testing in 2014 to an embarrassing 15% total. This drop occurred in virtually every category of student tested.

Such results would result in a code blue in hospitals, but it was just another day at the office for the Department of Education. Results were “stable” in civics (yes, but stably poor) and “lower” in history (yes, they’ve now dropped through the floor). Yawn. Only Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seemed willing to tell it like it is, calling the results “stark and inexcusable.”

Of course, we don’t really know how bad it is because, as in the COVID-19 crisis, we do not have enough testing. While other subjects, such as reading and math, are done at several grade levels (four, eight, and 12) and conducted every two years at most grade levels, the history and civics are tests are of eighth-graders only and carried out every four years. I would hate to see the numbers if we reached into the high school grades. The frequency and intensity of testing sends a definite message to teachers and students alike about what we prioritize in education.

As we are learning, it takes a lot of data to study curves, so let me add another focal point: how much civics and history are offered in the school curriculum. If you don’t teach it, students aren’t likely to learn it.

A 2018 study showed that only 10 states require as much as a year of study in civics or government, meanwhile, nine states do not require any. While math and science courses have grown in the curriculum, teaching students to understand how our government was designed and how it operates today has declined. Students in Rhode Island have even brought a federal lawsuit against educators for failing to teach them the basics of U.S. government and civics.

We should not be surprised then that trust in government has declined when, according to an Annenberg Public Policy Center study, 75% of Americans are not even able to name the three branches of government. While we insist that immigrants take a citizenship test, few realize that only 36% of citizens could pass that same test, one which immigrants pass at a 97.5% pace. Don’t even start with me about students who think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court or that climate change was caused by the Cold War.

Isn’t it time to acknowledge that we now face a civic education crisis and make the learning of history and government a priority in our schools and, as President Ronald Reagan said, at our dinner tables? Otherwise, we will be asking people to run our country who never had the opportunity to learn about it.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


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