Researcher and Writer in Washington, DC

Study on How Much Do 17-Year Olds Know?

Retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter made further news recently when he despaired of the state of civics education in the United States.  Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post writes

The justice went on to lament how many Americans today do not grow up understanding even the most basic truths about U.S. democracy — that there are three branches of government, for example. This ignorance, he said, was “the most profoundly important fact” to emerge from O’Connor’s first seminars, because if people do not understand the divisions and limitations of power, they certainly will not defend the judiciary’s independence.

This led to a realization, he said, that “we had to start with the reeducation of a substantial part of the American population.” Recalling Benjamin Franklin’s oft-told admonition to a woman asking what the Founding Fathers had created — “a republic, madam, if you can keep it” — Souter said, somewhat gloomily, “It is being lost. It is lost if it is not understood.”

In February of 2008, Common Core released a report on the results of a  survey of 17-year olds’ knowledge of basic facts of western (especially U.S.) history and literature generally.  “Overall, how did today’s 17-year-olds fare? On the whole, students answered 67 percent of the 33 questions correctly, earning a cumulative grade of D” (p. 7).  Students tended to do better on the history questions, with 82% knowing that Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation.  They did less well on the questions on literature.

These low scores are not new — Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr., produced a book on this very topic over 20 years ago: What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).  Ravitch, it is worth mentioning, is a co-chair of Common Core.  Indeed, my own review of the test data came to the conclusion that while things are not getting worse, student knowledge seems to have been low for decades.  (See Kevin R. Kosar, Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005, chapter 1).

Source: Fred Hiatt, “Justice Souter’s Safe Place,” Washington Post, May 25, 2009; and Frederick M. Hess, Still at Risk: What Students Don’t Know, Even Now (Washington, DC: Common Core, February 2008).

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