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Students Flunk U.S. History Test: Congress Calls on Teachers to 'Redouble Efforts'

Share A report released last month revealed that 65 percent of college seniors surveyed failed to pass a high-school level American history test. Would your students pass the test that so many college students failed? Would you? Included: A printable version of the Elite College History Survey.

"Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), That it is the sense of Congress that -- ... history teachers and educators at all levels should redouble their efforts to bolster the knowledge of United States history among students of all ages and to restore the vitality of America's civic memory."

-- excerpted from The House-Senate Resolution on American History Education, June 27, 2000

A Sampling of Survey Results

  • Seven percent of students surveyed thought Sputnik was the first animal to travel into space.
  • Twenty-three percent thought it was John F. Kennedy who said, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."
  • Twenty-six percent thought the Articles of Confederation established the division of powers between the states and the federal government.
  • Forty-three percent identified the Declaration of Independence as the source of the phrase "Government of the people, by the people, for the people."
  • Forty-seven percent could not identify the president who was in office when the United States purchased the Panama Canal.
  • Sixty-three percent did not know during which war the Battle of the Bulge was fought.

  • In a recent American history survey, only 23 percent of college seniors correctly identified James Madison as the "Father of the Constitution"; 98 percent knew that Snoop Doggy Dog is a rapper. The survey, conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis (CSRA) at the University of Connecticut, at the request of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), was designed to measure students' knowledge of American history and government.

    More than 500 seniors at 55 of the best colleges and universities in the United States responded to the telephone questionnaire, which consisted of multiple choice questions on topics ranging from the Magna Carta to the Monroe Doctrine, from the Battle of Yorktown to the Battle of the Bulge. Sixty-five percent of the students -- from such schools as Yale, Northwestern, Smith, and Bowdoin -- failed to "pass" the test and only one student answered all 34 questions correctly.

    Ninety-nine percent of the respondents, however, correctly identified Beavis and Butthead!

    According to the CSRA, the survey results demonstrate that "little more than half of college seniors know general information about American democracy and the Constitution," and most "do not know specifics about major wars the United States participated in." Perhaps most troubling is that no significant differences were found between the responses of history majors and those of students pursuing other academic majors.


    The dismal results of the survey spurred The House-Senate Resolution on American History Education, which calls for the strengthening of American history requirements at all levels of the educational system. In proposing the resolution, Senator Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn, said, "[The] survey reveals that our next generation of leaders and citizens is leaving college with a stunning lack of knowledge of their heritage and the democratic values that have long sustained our country. ... We cannot ignore the role of our public schools in contributing to this historical ignorance, so we must ask educators at all levels to redouble their efforts to bolster our children's knowledge of U.S. history and help us restore the vitality of our civic memory."

    Show and Tell
    Today's Education World story discusses the congressional call for teachers to "to bolster the knowledge of United States history among students." Do you have a favorite activity, lesson plan, or unit for teaching American history? Share it with your colleagues on today's message board.

    Could your students pass the Elite College History Survey? Could you? Click here to give it a shot!

    Editor's Note: According to the CSRA, school selections were based on America's Best Colleges, a ranking of universities and liberal arts colleges provided by U.S. News and World Report.

    Linda Starr
    Education World®
    Copyright © 2000 Education World

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