Friday, September 18, 2009

Failing the Test on Constitution Day

Yesterday was Constitution Day.

We didn't have Constitution Day when I was in school. But we did have what was called Citizenship Day, which was observed in May. Actually, Citizenship Day was observed on a Sunday so it had no specific influence on anything we did in school. In fact, by the time Citizenship Day was observed (the third Sunday in May), school either had dismissed for the summer or was about to dismiss for the summer.

Constitution Day, though, is different. It was created five years ago (September 17 was designated because it was on that day in 1787 that the Constitution was signed) and was officially named "Constitution Day and Citizenship Day." According to the law that created it, all schools that receive any federal funds must emphasize the history of the Constitution on that day. Many colleges and universities have turned it into week–long events that give some attention to the citizenship tests that immigrants must take to become U.S. citizens.

When I was a child, I was an exception to the rule. I have always been interested in American history. Maybe that was due to the fact that my parents invested in encyclopedias when I was young, and I had information sources readily available to me at home. I can't tell you how many times I heard a reference to something on the radio or TV that aroused my curiosity. When I asked my mother about it, she inevitably told me to look it up.

But even before I could read, I remember my mother reading stories to me about heroes in American history.

Somehow I developed an interest in the American presidency. I remember vividly that, when I was in first grade, I could recite all the presidents in chronological order — a talent that seemed to astonish all the adults in my world. For some reason, it didn't strike me as being anything remarkable, but I dutifully recited the presidents for any adult who asked me to do so.

I can still recite the presidents in chronological order. There are more of them now, of course, but the additions to the list have come in my lifetime. I guess that makes it easier.

Sometimes, when I was a child, I received a small reward for performing this "trick." I must confess, there were times when I felt like a puppy who was encouraged to "beg" before being given a favorite treat. But, even when I was 6 years old, I remember being aware of the fact that this was something that not everyone could do.

I guess I realized that most people — adults as well as my peers — wouldn't be able to tell you who William Henry Harrison or Franklin Pierce or Rutherford Hayes were. But it seemed inconceivable to me that anyone would not know who George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were. Their portraits always seemed to adorn the classroom walls when I was in school — and they were particularly prevalent in February, the month in which both men were born.

Things have changed more than I thought since I was in elementary school.

This week, News9 in Oklahoma City reported the results of a survey of Oklahoma high school students. The survey was commissioned by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs in observance of Constitution Day. Questions were taken from the citizenship tests that immigrants must take to become American citizens.

The results were not encouraging.

Only 23% of respondents gave the correct answer to this question: "Who was the first President of the United States?"

Students were asked 10 questions. Immigrants who take the citizenship test must score 60% or better to pass, but only 3% of the students in Oklahoma would have scored that well.

A spokesman for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs observed that this outcome is not unique to Oklahoma. He reported similar results in Arizona. That doesn't bode well for schoolchildren in the rest of the nation.

No child left behind?

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