Paul Drinkwater/NBC/AP
Jay Leno, host of 'The Tonight Show' on NBC sits on the show's set in Burbank, Calif. last November. Op-ed contributors Gary Schmitt and Cheryl Miller say young Americans' lack of 'the basic knowledge needed to become engaged and informed citizens' may make 'great comic fodder for Jay Leno’s “man on the street” interviews, but Jefferson wouldn’t laugh' and '[n]either should we.'

Does Obama care that US students aren't prepared to be US citizens?

The US Department of Education’s decision to indefinitely postpone nearly all national exams in civics and US history eliminates the only objective gauge of whether students are learning basic US history and the essential skills needed to be good citizens. Sadly, we already know they aren’t.

When Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, he prescribed a specific course of study for its students. Included were works by John Locke and Algernon Sidney for “the general principles of liberty”; the Declaration of Independence for the “distinctive principles” of the US government; “The Federalist” for the “genuine meaning” of the Constitution; and George Washington’s Farewell Address for “political lessons of peculiar value.”

The author of the Declaration clearly thought that laying out the principles of republican self-rule was not sufficient in itself. A healthy republic would require an educated, well-informed citizenry, one that understood its nation’s history, its founding principles, and its major institutions.

Judging by the decision in May to indefinitely postpone national exams in civics, US history, and geography for fourth- and 12th-graders, however, Jefferson’s wisdom has gone by the boards. These tests, part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), are the only ongoing, objective benchmark of whether students are learning basic American history and the essential skills needed to be good citizens. 

The exams, also known as the “nation’s report card,” are continuing for eighth-graders, but because the bulk of civics teaching occurs in high school, testing only in middle school will reveal little.

NAEP tests are an important measure of student achievement. Unlike state benchmark exams, which vary, NAEP is administered uniformly across the nation, allowing education observers to get a clearer picture of student progress over time. 

This is not the first time that civics and history exams have been on the chopping block. In 2004, the civics exam was nearly canceled until educators and Congress members intervened. NAEP’s governing board then agreed to conduct the assessment and to increase the frequency of both the history and civics tests to every four years – a promise that is now being broken.

Officials claim the cuts are necessary to offset the $6.8 million NAEP lost due to federal budget cuts under “sequestration.” But if budgets reflect priorities, it’s fair to say that neither the Department of Education nor NAEP’s governing board (whose members are appointed by the department) are overly concerned about the civic mission of schools. The department has opted not to furlough any of its approximately 4,700 employees this year. By contrast, the Defense Department is furloughing 85 percent of its civilian workforce in an effort to preserve programs. 

The NAEP board is also piloting a new multimillion-dollar assessment for Technology and Engineering Literacy. It will roll out nationally next year, in lieu of the scheduled civics and history exams. Looking at the official promotional materials for TEL, it’s hard not to question the board’s decision to press forward with it. Among the burning questions TEL promises to answer is whether students know how to use the Internet effectively. 

The emphasis on basic academic skills pushed by the education-reform movement has had the unintended consequence of devaluing other important parts of the curriculum. Thus, while the NAEP reading and math tests are mandated, history and civics are considered optional, to be conducted only “if resources permit.”   

In this instance, no news will definitely not be good news. According to the last NAEP civics assessment, released in 2010, less than half of eighth-graders surveyed knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights, and only 1 in 10 had age-appropriate knowledge of the system of checks and balance. Students performed worse on the 2010 US history assessment than they did on any other NAEP test. 

This poor performance might have to do with the dwindling amount of time allotted to civics and history. In 2006, 72 percent of 12th-graders said they studied the Constitution; the rate fell to 67 percent in 2010. As the old truism puts it, what gets tested is what gets taught. Now, only eight states test their students on American government or civics.

Parents and schools go to great lengths to make sure students know the rules of the road before allowing them to drive. Yet we are willing to turn over the duties and rights of citizenship to young adults who lack the basic knowledge needed to become engaged and informed citizens. This might make great comic fodder for Jay Leno’s “man on the street” interviews, but Jefferson wouldn’t laugh. Neither should we. 

Gary Schmitt and Cheryl Miller are, respectively, director and program manager of the Program on American Citizenship at the American Enterprise Institute.

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