Fewer than half of college seniors tested in a study knew that the Declaration of Independence contained the phrase “all men are created equal.”
Intercollegiate Studies Institute released results yesterday of a history and institutions test given last year to seniors and freshman, stating both groups failed the exam.
On average, seniors scored 1.5 percent higher than freshmen did on the test, which included questions about American history, government and international relations. The survey, administered by the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy, tested 14,000 randomly selected freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities in the United States.
Seniors averaged a score of 53.2 percent, while freshmen averaged 51.7 percent. Seniors at 16 institutions, including Cornell, Brown, Yale and Georgetown, scored lower than freshmen did at their school.
“Students learn almost nothing about civic matters while they are in college,” said Josiah Bunting, chairman of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board. “Our students neither enter nor exit their universities with a level of civic literacy that even approaches a satisfactory level.”
Eugene W. Hickok, former U.S. deputy secretary of education and a member of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board, says undergraduate education is often an afterthought at research institutions. The study found that prestigious institutions improved students’ civic knowledge far less than other schools did, Mr. Bunting said.
“An Ivy League education contributes nothing — nothing — to a student’s civic education,” he said.
The study found that schools where students took more history and civics-related courses scored higher than schools where students took fewer courses, prompting ISI to recommend curricula requiring such courses.
In addition, the study indicated that students who knew more about American history and institutions were more involved in community service and political campaigns and tended to vote more often. The study also said family discussion of current events or history also appears to contribute to higher levels of civic learning.
Mr. Hickok said ISI called on colleges to take responsibility for assessing and addressing the quality of their history and civics instruction and challenged university trustees to become involved in the process.
In addition, he said ISI recommends building centers of excellence to train professors in teaching, provide faculty resources and encourage student civics organizations.
“America’s students need to understand what America is about,” Mr. Hickok said. “Nothing less than our nation’s failure is at risk. We need to be about the business of making patriots.”