NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Tests Show Students Don't Know Facts

May 1, 1997

One of the latest fads in trendy educational circles is to ignore facts in the classroom. The director of a federally funded education laboratory told a national "education summit" a few years ago that "we are no longer teaching facts to children" because "none of us can guess what information they will need in the future."

Almost anyone could have predicted the results.

Here are some of the answers given recently by 17-year-olds on the federal government's National Assessment of Educational Progress:

  • One-third thought Columbus reached the New World after 1750, and the same proportion couldn't identify Abraham Lincoln.
  • Sixty-two percent were unable to place the Civil War in the years between 1850 and 1990, while one-third had no idea what Brown vs. Board of Education changed.
  • Half could not calculate the area of a rectangle, and one-third could not identify the countries the U.S. fought against in World War II.
  • One-third did not know that the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico, and only 20 percent could write a simple one-page letter to a local supermarket manager applying for a job.

Those who are truly concerned by such numbers make the point that while student's workloads and understanding have been declining, grades have been inflating. Three decades ago, only one college-bound high school senior in eight carried an A average. Today that figure is one in four.

In a survey of 18- to 24-year-olds done for the National Geographic Society, it was established that:

  • Only 45 percent were able to locate New York State on a map.
  • Only one-third could find Michigan, and one-quarter could identify Massachusetts.
  • On a world map, just 36 percent could locate England.

Source: Karl Zinsmeister, "The 60s Rules in Public Schools," American Enterprise, May - June, 1997.


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