A new study sounds the alarm over undergraduates' ignorance of American history. Is it a crisis or a case of crying wolf?





The study's findings were irresistibly damning, even if they did sound vaguely familiar: American colleges, supposedly the nation's hothouses for enlightened citizenship, in fact produce civic nincompoops.

That was the word in late September from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a Delaware think tank, when it released its study, "The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education's Failure to Teach America's History and Institutions."

The think tank had hired researchers at the University of Connecticut to administer a 60-question, multiple-choice test to 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 different institutions. The average score among seniors on the test of American history, politics, and economics was 53.2 percent — a big, fat F, the institute suggested. What's more, seniors only scored 1.5 percentage points higher on average than freshmen. And at some institutions, including such power-houses as Brown and the Johns Hopkins Universities, seniors actually did worse than freshmen. "Negative learning," declared the institute, coining an ominous phrase. The press took notice....

[But] once the news cycle had passed, some in academe began scratching their heads about the study's methodology and findings. Other professors and administrators wondered whether the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an intellectually conservative organization that has long advocated more required courses and traditional curricula, was an objective source for research that seemed packaged to confirm the institute's own deeply held positions....

The problem, according to many in aca-deme, is that the think tank has not released any more than that first handful of sample items from the test, making it hard to judge what the test's results really mean. The institute says it is still using the questions in a continuing round of testing, and so does not want to release them yet.

One finding from the study that did not make it into news reports was that only two students out of 14,000 got perfect scores on the test. "When only two out of 14,000 people get the exam 100 percent correct, it sounds like the test is designed to show what people don't know," says Rebecca F. Goldin, an associate professor of mathematics at George Mason University and the director of research at a media-watchdog group affiliated with her university. With the caveat that she has not been able to see the rest of the test questions, she says that to conclude that the average score of 53.2 percent is a "flunking" grade is just to trust the institute's opinion of what every student should know....


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