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Opinion: Colleges Get Failing Grades on Civics

Apr 8, 2010 – 5:23 AM
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Richard Brake

Special to AOL News
(April 8) -- On this day 97 years ago, the 17th Amendment was ratified, changing the way we elect senators. Not that many college students would know anything about it, either when they get to college or when they graduate.

For the past five years, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute has tried to measure how well colleges and universities do in giving their students a basic understanding of America's core history, key texts, and enduring political and economic institutions.

The results aren't pretty.

Half of the 14,000 incoming freshmen tested failed the 60-question multiple-choice test, getting just half the questions right. Worse, they barely know any more when they graduate, with seniors scoring 54 percent correct. No school, not even Harvard or Yale, got above a 69 percent average among seniors. Worse still, in some schools, students did worse coming out than going in.

Some of the most missed questions by students dealt with such fundamental American concepts as judicial review, George Washington's warning against "foreign entanglements," the Monroe Doctrine, "The Federalist Papers" and basic details of the Revolutionary and Civil wars. (You can take a more complete version of the test on our Web site.)

Colleges like to pride themselves on preparing their young citizens to become the future leaders of the Republic, but how can you be an effective leader if you don't know the story of how our nation's past leaders grappled with the perennial challenges of governing a free people?

Here's the list of the top 10 schools that improved their students' knowledge of civics (the figures show the percentage point increase in scores between freshmen and seniors):

Civics Chart 1

Source: Intercollegiate Studies Institute

And here are the bottom 10 schools -- which saw their students lose the most ground (the figures show the percentage point decrease in scores between freshmen and seniors):

Civics Chart 2

Source: Intercollegiate Studies Institute

So, what should we make of this?

First, there's clearly room for vast improvement on the part of all colleges and universities when it comes to effectively teaching America's history and institutions. No school did terribly well.

Second, prestige doesn't necessarily guarantee quality and excellence. In fact, most of the schools on the losing side were in the elite category. And while schools like Johns Hopkins do a better job attracting smarter students, when it comes to actually doing the job that colleges are paid to do -- promoting learning -- little schools like Rhodes College and Murray State leave them in the dust. Clearly, exorbitant tuitions don't guarantee a curricula that ensures that students learn the basics about American history and government.

Finally, parents and taxpayers who pay the bills of American higher education need to start holding colleges accountable for the actual outputs of their academic programming and, if necessary, start demanding more transparency in terms of what is taught on their campuses.

Dr. Richard Brake is co-chair of Intercollegiate Studies Institute's National Civic Literacy Board. For more details regarding ISI's past and current civic literacy studies, and to take the test online, please go to

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Filed under: Opinion
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