You know those groan-inducing spots on late-night television when the typical person-on-the-street can't identify the vice president?
That's akin to what happened to the state's education system Tuesday, with the issuance of a new report that found only 3.5 percent of traditional public high school students would be able to pass a U.S. citizenship test— bombing out on questions such as who was America's first president, who wrote the Declaration of Independence and what do we call the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.
There's little room to be smug from the charter school or private school arenas. While they both did better, they still did poorly, with only 7 percent and 14 percent of those students passing the test, respectively, according to a survey by the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank.
"I was dismayed and shocked at just how poorly the kids did," said Matthew Ladner, vice president of research. "When 74 percent can't tell you that George Washington was the first president of the U.S., that's really disturbing."
The question the students did best on was really more of a geography question: 58 percent were able to name the Atlantic Ocean as the body of water on the East Coast.
The study, conducted in November 2008, asked 1,350 public high school students 10 questions pulled at random from a list of 100 on the U.S. citizenship test. A similar number of private school students were polled in a separate sample in the same period.
The standard on the citizenship test is that the applicant must be able to answer at least six of 10 questions correctly on the test, which is not multiple choice.
The results come as teachers focus less on the memorization of discrete facts, given that information is so readily available at the stroke of a key, and more on the application of knowledge.
Ladner said that philosophy "is entirely wrongheaded. It's very much like learning to compose music. You have to learn your scales before you compose a symphony — and you need some foundation of facts before you can do higher-level thinking."
But John Wright, the head of the state teachers union, the Arizona Education Association, dismissed the report as a "gotcha piece of writing."
"I think there's already an ongoing discussion of standards and assessment, but it is not informed by this kind of survey," he said, adding that for all of its shock value, he didn't find it very analytical.
Ronald Marx, the dean of the University of Arizona's College of Education, said he wasn't pleased to hear the findings but said he was more concerned than alarmed.
"You don't develop a deep understanding of how government works by knowing the name of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution," he said.
Marx said rather than have students memorize 10 facts about science, for example, the students can be asked one big question — such as how to create a sustainable environment in a water-parched desert — and learn the underlying facts in the process.
University High School student Victor Almazan, a sophomore, said there was little focus on American history last year because of an emphasis on Western civilization. Yet he describes his classmates as very engaged in the last presidential election, from having classwide discussions to the point of holding mock elections.
Still, he said, he was concerned about the findings. "If you don't know who Thomas Jefferson is, then you're not educated on other topics of social studies," the 15-year-old said.
Although the Goldwater Institute often clashes with public educators on policy issues, it's not the only one raising questions about civic education.
The Center for Education Policy, a public-school advocacy organization that has been tracking the impact of the No Child Left Behind act, found in 2007 that schools were pumping up math and reading instruction by sacrificing other disciplines. A third of the districts surveyed reported cutting social studies, prompting the National Council for the Social Studies to declare it was "increasingly alarmed" by the erosion of social studies.
And if the goal of civic education is civic participation, that has been found by other researchers — perhaps most notably by Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community" — to be on the decline.
The Goldwater report advocates requiring students to pass a citizenship exam, administered by a third party, either as a graduation requirement or to get into college.
Tucson Unified School District Governing Board member Adelita Grijalva said she was concerned about the findings, but was wary of adding civics to the already-long list of testing mandates.
1. What is the supreme law of the land?
Answer: The Constitution. correct 29.5 percent
2. What do we call the first 10 amendments to the Constitution?
Answer: The Bill of Rights. correct 25 percent
3. What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress?
Answer: The Senate and the House. correct 23 percent
4. How many justices are on the Supreme Court?
Answer: Nine. correct 9.4 percent
5. Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?
Answer: Thomas Jefferson. correct 25.3 percent
6. What ocean is on the East Coast of the United States?
Answer: Atlantic. correct 58.8 percent
7. What are the two major political parties in the United States?
Answer: Democratic and Republican. correct 49.6 percent
8. We elect a U.S. senator for how many years?
Answer: Six. correct 14.5 percent
9. Who was the first president?
Answer: Washington. correct 26.5 percent
10. Who is in charge of the executive branch?
Answer: The president. correct 26 percent