77% Oklahoma High School Students Can’t Name 1st President?
A recent survey of Oklahoma public high school students found that the overwhelming majority can’t answer even simple questions about U.S. government and history.
A thousand students were given 10 questions drawn from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services item bank. Candidates for U.S. citizenship must answer six questions correctly in order to become citizens. About 92 percent of the people who take the citizenship test pass on their first try, according to immigration service data. However, Oklahoma students did not fare as well. Only about 3 percent of the students surveyed would have passed the citizenship test.
Below are the questions and results:
Question % of Students
Who Answered Correctly
What is the supreme law of the land?
28 What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?
26 What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress?
27 How many justices are there on the Supreme Court?
10 Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?
14 What ocean is on the east coast of the United States?
61 What are the two major political parties in the United States?
43 We elect a U.S. senator for how many years?
11 Who was the first President of the United States?
23 Who is in charge of the executive branch?
But here’s the thing: I simply don’t believe these results are accurate. I taught Politics 101 to college freshmen for a decade, so I’m under no illusion that our kids have a strong working knowledge of how our system works. (Indeed, having administered basic geography tests as part of my World Politics course, I’m shocked that 61% not only know the Atlantic Ocean but that they know east from west.) I could see students not knowing the answers to several of the questions above, especially framed as they are. But, seriously, your average 6-year-old knows who George Washington is. They couldn’t tell you anything about his administration, of course, but they know: wooden teeth, chopped down cherry tree, couldn’t tell a lie, Martha, and 1st president. It’s, frankly, trivia. (And hagiography in the case of the cherry tree fable.) But they know it nonetheless.
Tom Maguire took the time to click the link to the actual survey results. He observes, “in defense of the Oklahomans, a ten question test was administered by telephone to one thousand high school students. That has to be an unfamiliar format for the respondents, and probably not all of them gave it their best shot. Still, this is pretty grim.”
Actually, it’s worse than that. The exam was commissioned by a conservative activist organization whose mission is to show how lousy public schools are so as to advocate for home schooling and private, religious schools. Read the long diatribe that serves as the press release for the survey’s results.
Here’s how they describe the methodology:
In Oklahoma, the telephone surveyors called a sample of 1,000 public high-school students and read the following statement: “On the next 10 questions, I will be asking you questions about American government and history. Give me your best answer, and it is permissible to respond ‘I don’t know.'”
Guess what the most popular answer was on just about every question was. Yes sir: “I don’t know.” It was the majority response on the two parts of the Congress (58%) and who’s in charge of the executive branch (51%) question and was in the 40’s on three others. It was the number one answer on eight of ten questions.
How many of those were actually non-responses? Given the purpose of the exam, I wouldn’t be at all shocked if the survey firm wasn’t instructed to code non-responses as “I don’t know” rather than going on to a student who would take the time to give thoughtful responses. (The only thing holding back my confidence in this regard is that the Atlantic Ocean question is listed 6th and got a very high right answer rate.)
Interestingly, too, the right answer was the plurality actual response answer on almost every question. And the runner-up answers were, for the most part, non-idiotic. So, 17% thought the Declaration of Independence was the supreme law of the land, compared to 28% correctly identifying the Constitution and 41% “I don’t know.” Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Adams were the most popular wrong answers on 1st president.
The chief “wrong” answer on the “Who is in Charge of the Executive Branch” question was “the Governor,” which garnered 10%. That’s actually right, since the question doesn’t specify federal or state. Similarly, shouldn’t the 11% who answered that the two parties are Communist and Republican be scored correctly? (I jest, of course.)
Again, I’m not Pollyannish on how much our kids know. In 2001, Steven Taylor had a bonus question on a multiple-choice test he administered to 101 students at the university where we both taught at the time asking who the vice president was. A woefully small number got it right. (In fairness, Dick Cheney was new in office and much less controversial than he’d be later. Also, Steve’s eldest son, then perhaps 6, knew the answer.) But a telephone survey of 17-year-olds who have no incentive whatsoever to take it seriously administered by a group that wants to prove how lousy our schools are is simply unfair.
UPDATE: Kevin Drum emails to point out something I totally missed: “not one single student got even 8 answers right.”
Kevin says, “That’s just not credible.”
No, it isn’t. Indeed, few people got more than 4 right! My strong guess is that: 1) they rotated the questions, rather than asking them in the order above and 2) the vast majority of students hung up after no more than three or four questions.