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A great nation's disgrace: the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Civics report card, May 4, 2011.

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas. Assessments are conducted periodically in mathematics, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography, and U.S. history.

Since NAEP assessments are administered uniformly using the same sets of test booklets across the nation, NAEP results serve as a common metric for all states and selected urban districts. The assessment stays essentially the same from year to year, with only carefully documented changes. This permits NAEP to provide a clear picture of student academic progress over time. May 4, 2011 it dropped its latest bombshell. America's present and future citizens know less and less about the democracy they will  inherit.

As retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in a statement, "Knowledge of our system of government is not handed down through the gene pool. The habits of citizenship must be learned.... But we have neglected civic education for the past several decades, and the results are predictably dismal."

Some of the shocking results.

Item: Many high school students (being at least 18 years of age) may be old enough to vote, but just one quarter of them demonstrate at least a "proficient" level of civics knowledge and skills. As if this figure weren't bad enough on its own, this 24 percent figure actually represents a slight dip from the proportion of 12th graders scoring proficient or "advanced" in the subject four years ago.

76% of these high school students could not name a single power granted to Congress by the Constitution. Neither could they identify a single effect of foreign policy on other nations.

Item: Just 22 percent of U.S. eighth grade students had any idea of the purpose of the Bill of Rights and were unable to identify even a single one of these rights. This result is now chronic. This result has not changed at all since first measured in 1998.

Only 1 in 10 of these eighth graders demonstrated acceptable knowledge of the checks and balances between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches,the bedrock of our entire way of governance.

A tiny ray of light.

Amongst all the dismaying news in this study, there are, it is true, two aspects which show improvement. Since we must take our good news as we find it, even if meager, here it is:

Item: The average 4th grade score rose compared with both 2006 and 1998, the first time "the nation's report card" was given. Twenty seven percent were  proficient or better in 2010, compared with 24 percent in 2006.

Item: Hispanic students, a growing proportion of the country's population and student body, narrowed the gap between their scores and those of non-Hispanic white students. On average, Hispanic eighth-graders scored 137 and non-Hispanic whites 160. This 23-point gap was down 29 in 2006.

We stopped teaching civics, and such egregious results are inevitable.

Justice O'Connor's comments upon the release of the newest NAEP survey are apt. If you fail to teach what used to be called "civics" in my day... you get students (and future citizens) with inadequate information on what our government is and how it works. (Justice O'Connor last year founded a non-profit organization It teaches civics through Web-based games.) Ignorance is endemic, systematic, embedded and completely predictable.

It's time to attack this pervasive problem root and branch. What we must do:

1) Recognize the problem. We cannot solve a problem unless we recognize that there is a problem. Here there is more than a problem;  there is incipient catastrophe. The President himself must recognize the grave seriousness of the matter and direct the nation's attention to it, basing his remarks on the solid foundation of these important data from NAEC, which was created by Congress in 1988 and not a minute too soon.

2) You cannot have students proficient in civics where their teachers are not proficient. The lack of civics awareness can be traced to several causes, one crucial aspect of which is the abysmal level of teacher training in civics. Teacher proficiency and student proficiency must take place together, for to blame students for the inadequacies of their teachers is unjust and unproductive.

This leads ineluctably to what teachers are taught in their training programs and what they must teach in the classrooms of our civics challenged students. We must agree that there are certain civics topics which both students and teachers must know, so to be  introduced into the curricula of each. And then, though the teachers unions will scream bloody murder, these teachers, no matter what level of seniority, must be tested (as their students are) in the subject matter they are expected to know.

3) We must reward students (and even teachers too) who demonstrate superior civics knowledge. When my mother was in high school in the 1940s, she received two medals for civics education; I have them still. I received honors, too, in the same subject. We can help students excel in civics by giving them tangible reasons to excel. There was nothing to be gained by destroying a culture which recognized and rewarded merit. We are suffering the consequences now and will continue to suffer them, and even worse, if this critical problem of our endangered democracy is not dealt with now... and with the total focus and seriousness it requires.

About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc., providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses. Dr. Lant is also the author of 18 best-selling business books. Republished with author's permission by Ray Wisniewski <a href="

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