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A NATION STILL AT RISK: Report Declares that America’s Seventeen-Year-Olds Lack Knowledge of Historical Events, Literary Accomplishments

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"One need not search far to find attacks on anti-terrorism measures that drawn upon imagery from 1984 or use the term ‘Orwellian'....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."

Twenty-five years ago, the federal government’s A Nation at Risk declared that America’s students were underperforming academically compared to both their earlier counterparts and their international contemporaries. These findings sparked school reform efforts in the areas of curricular content and expectations for achievement, among others. But today, in light of the focus on high-stakes testing centered on basic skills, U.S. seventeen-year-olds learn little about literature and history. So says Still at Risk: What Students Don’t Know, Even Now, a new report from Common Core, which describes itself as a new, nonpartisan research and advocacy organization that will press for more teaching of the liberal arts in American public schools. The report includes data compiled through a telephone survey administered to 1,200 seventeen-year-olds.

According to the report, only 43 percent of students surveyed placed the Civil War in the correct half-century, 50 percent correctly identified the purpose of the Federalist Papers, and 61 percent could define the Renaissance. In addition, more than one quarter of students thought Christopher Columbus made his voyages after 1750, and roughly one third did not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech and religion. However, 97 percent of students surveyed knew that Martin Luther King Jr. gave the “I Have a Dream” speech; this was the only question that more than 90 percent of students answered correctly.

Just 38 percent of students correctly identified the author and subject matter in The Canterbury Tales, 41 percent did likewise for the novel Invisible Man, and 56 percent knew that 1984 was about a “a dictatorship in which every citizen was watched in order to stamp out all individuality.” Students failed seven of the eleven literature questions. With 79 percent of respondents able to identify the theme of To Kill a Mockingbird, it was the most frequently correctly answered question in the section.

“The problems that the above results pose for civil discourse are neither murky nor obscure,” the report reads. “One need not search far to find attacks on anti-terrorism measures that drawn upon imagery from 1984 or use the term ‘Orwellian’….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.”

The report finds that children with at least one college-educated parent-that is, a parent who earned at least an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree-were more likely to answer questions correctly than those without a college-educated parent in both subjects. On nine of the history questions and five of the literature questions, the difference between the percentages of either group correctly answering the questions was at least ten points. The report called this disparity “a worrisome state of affairs and one deserving careful attention.”

In the report’s preface, Antonia Cortese (executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers) and Diane Ravitch (research professor of education at New York University), both trustees of Common Core, blame a focus on standards and testing-in only reading and mathematics-for the movement away from content-rich curriculum frameworks and toward a focus on basic skills. They do not negate the importance of these skills but believe that the nation is “obsessed” with the testing of them, and that such obsessions are toxic for children and those who want children to reap the benefits of a balanced, rich education.

“We believe in the importance of preparing students to live and succeed in a global economy,” they write. “We don’t think that mastery of basic skills is sufficient for this goal….We believe that good schools not only teach the basic skills but provide a rich curriculum in the arts and sciences, one that offers not only the basic skills but the full range of subjects to all students.”

In conducting its survey, Common Core sampled thirty-three multiple-choice questions from the 1986 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP)-twenty-two on history and eleven on literature.

The full report can be found at http://www.aei.org/publications/pubID.27576,filter.all/pub_detail.asp.

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