Guest opinion: Bolster floundering civic knowledge in Colorado
Civic knowledge forms the most basic foundation of meaningful participation in American democracy. James Madison, a man generally regarded as the father of the U.S. Constitution, captured this essential truth in an 1822 letter.
Madison wrote, “[a] popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Sadly, the former president’s lofty statement contrasts strikingly with the statistics on civic knowledge in modern American society.
Senate Bill 148, a bill with broad bipartisan support in both Colorado legislative chambers, aims to address that problem by requiring high school students to pass the civics portion of the U.S. Naturalization Test — a version of the same test taken by immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship.
A 2014 survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only about one-third of Americans could correctly name all three branches of governments. Roughly the same percentage could not even name one. More than 60 percent of Americans could not accurately identify which political party held a majority in the U.S. House and Senate.
Education data tell a similarly disheartening story. Just 23 percent of U.S. eighth-graders are proficient in civics according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The proficiency figure for Hispanic children is 12 percent. For African-American children, it is 9 percent. Black students have not seen a statistically significant increase in NAEP civics scores since the test’s inception in 1998.
In Colorado, just one in five seventh-graders achieved strong or distinguished command on our state’s social studies assessment, which tests proficiency on state-designed standards in civics, history, geography and economics. For minority students, that figure is one in 10.
As Madison implied, people cannot hope to meaningfully participate in a democratic system without understanding the fundamentals of how that system works. Thus, civic ignorance is not simply an annoyance or fodder for snarky Internet videos. It is a danger to the health of our republic.
Given the statistics above, we should not be surprised that huge portions of our population feel disillusioned and abandoned by the American political system. We should, however, be doing everything we can to reverse the trend. Senate Bill 148 is a small step toward ensuring that public education is fulfilling its obligation to provide students with the foundational knowledge needed to live and participate in a free, democratic society.
The requirement that American public school students pass a version of the same test that immigrants seeking citizenship must take is not unreasonable. Ninety-one percent of immigrants who have taken the test have passed. Are we to believe our students cannot meet the same standard?
Some have argued against Senate Bill 148 because it “increases testing” one year after the Legislature significantly scaled back assessment. They remind us that Colorado already requires high school students to complete a civics course in order to graduate.
These arguments ignore the fact that the civics courses do not appear to have had any perceptible effect on civic proficiency. They also do not mention that the deepest assessment cuts were made in social studies. The new sampling system requires that each public school administer the assessment at tested grade levels only once every three years. A single, 100-question test that must be passed once in the entire course of a student’s K-12 career will come nowhere near the time and logistical requirements of the previous system.
Whatever small increase in testing time accompanies SB 148’s requirement is outweighed by the benefit of equipping students with the foundational civic knowledge they need to meaningfully participate in the greatest republic the world has ever known.
Reinforcing the foundations of American democracy is worth braving the political storm.
Ross Izard is the senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.