K-12

Most Mississippians can’t pass U.S. citizenship exam. Is American history education the problem?

Nearly 70 percent of Mississippians failed test of basic knowledge of American history

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Nearly 70 percent of Mississippi residents are unable to pass the U.S. citizenship test, which assesses basic knowledge of American history, according to new survey results released earlier this month by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Scores on the 20-question test placed Mississippi near the bottom nationally; residents of only three states – Arkansas, Kentucky and Louisiana – had lower scores.

The survey asked 41,000 Americans adults to show their knowledge of American history by, for example, placing presidents in context of historic events, naming some of the 13 original states, and determining the time periods of various wars. A score of 60 percent or higher is considered passing. Nationwide, only 40 percent of Americans received a passing score. Vermont was the only state in which the majority of residents passed, with 53 percent of Vermont’s survey takers scoring 60 percent or higher.

Survey respondents had the most trouble with questions that asked them to name the year the U.S. Constitution was written and state the number of constitutional amendments. A quarter of Americans were unaware that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech.

Officials from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation say these results point to longstanding problems with the way American history is taught in schools. “American history education is not working, as students are asked to memorize dates, events and leaders, which the poll results shows are not retained in adulthood,” said Arthur Levine, president of the foundation, in a statement. “Based on our research, this is not an issue of whether high school history teachers are adequately prepared or whether kids study American history in school. The answer to both questions is yes. This is an issue of how we teach American history. Now it is too often made boring and robbed of its capacity to make sense of a chaotic present and inchoate future … This requires a fundamental change in how American history is taught and learned to make it relevant to our students’ lives, captivating and inclusive to all Americans.”

This is not the first time a report has found Americans’ understanding of U.S. history to be lacking. Results of a U.S. history test administered in 2014 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that although scores among eighth-grade students increased from 1994 to 2014, they remained stagnant between 2010 and 2014. Only 18 percent of students scored at or above proficient on U.S. History in 2014.

Mississippi has faced its own shortcomings in teaching important American history topics, like civil rights. A 2017 investigation by The Hechinger Report and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that even though Mississippi’s social studies standards were once considered a model for other states, many school districts rely on old textbooks that don’t adequately teach or address civil rights issues.

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Jackie Mader

Jackie Mader is multimedia editor. She has covered preK-12 education and teacher preparation nationwide, with a focus on the rural south. Her work has appeared… See Archive

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