The National Assessment of Educational Progress last month released a “National Civics Report Card,” the first such report since 2006. No big surprises here: Our schools flunked their civics exam. The interesting question is why our schools continue to fail in a task that earlier generations of educators performed without difficulty.

As a former middle-school civics teacher myself, I’ve had an interest in this question for decades. In fact, I got into some hot water not long ago for suggesting in a speech to a national tea-party convention that voters ought to pass some test for minimal level of knowledge about our Constitution and political institutions. This idea was attacked as a disguised call for “a return to Jim Crow laws to keep minorities from voting.” No, I would like to erect obstacles to voting by all ignoramuses – white, black, brown, green or yellow.

The report documents how deep our civics education gap is. The report compares the level of knowledge among fourth-grade, eighth-grade and 12th-grade students and compares scores in 1998, 2006 and 2010. The bottom line: “There has been no significant change in 12 years.” Civics instruction is still failing our students and failing our society.

The NAEP is a widely respected testing program, and I believe these survey results are generally accurate. Here are a few of the findings of the nationally representative survey of 27,000 students in both public and private schools.

  • Students in grade four showed some progress from earlier surveys, but not students in grade 12, who showed a slight decline in scores.
  • While 64 percent of 12th graders showed knowledge “at or above the basic level,” only 24 percent of them scored at or above proficiency.
  • Putting aside all the spin in the report about evidence of progress since 1998, this means 76 percent of 12th graders are less than proficient in civics knowledge.
  • On the whole, only about 5 percent of students score at the “advanced” level beyond mere proficiency, and less than two percent of black and Hispanic students are in this category.

One finding is that there remains a wide gap in civics knowledge between white students and blacks and Hispanics, although the gap has narrowed somewhat since 1998. For example, on average Hispanic eighth-grade students scored 23 points lower than whites in 2010, compared to 31 points lower in 1998. Black students in the eighth grade showed only a one point gain from 1998.

The questions used in the NAEP civics tests seem to me to be adequate to the task of measuring basic civics knowledge free of political slant. On the other hand, it would have been nice to see the different scores of public and private-school students, but those data are either not compiled or not published in the report.

Why does civics education in our public schools remain so abysmal? Why are only 24 percent of 12th-grade students ranked as proficient or above in civics knowledge 40 years after the constitutional amendment granting 18-year-olds the right to vote?

We should be clear about one thing: The NAEP tests actual knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and how government works, not about what courses a student took in school. All states require some high-school exposure to civics, but there must be some other factor at work here besides lack of required instruction in a classroom. We have to recognize that civics instruction has declined because as a nation, and as a culture, we no longer place a high value on knowledge of our heritage.

That kind of deficit cannot be overcome simply by mandating additional classroom study of history or government. And that, my friends, is an indictment not of students, but of parents and citizens. In truth, our civics-education deficit among students is evidence of a civics deficit in our culture, and it is a deficit that is growing, not shrinking. It grows not merely from lack of classroom instruction, but from the constant assault from the entertainment industry, from many cultural icons and, unfortunately, from some educators as well.

When a fourth-grade teacher allows her class of 20 students to be used as a backdrop for a political event at a state capitol, as happened in Denver last month, is that “civics education” or a crass manipulation of students for political purposes? When the school-board chairman of Tucson Unified School District refuses to discipline students who disrupted a school-board meeting to such an extent the police had to be called to clear the room, is that teaching a lesson in “civic engagement” or merely pandering to the most vocal and violent element in the community?

In too many schools, left-wing activism has replaced traditional classroom instruction as the tool for promoting “civic involvement.” When this partisan manipulation of young minds becomes the sexy substitute for traditional instruction in history and civics, we all lose.

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