Americans Fail the Test of Civic Literacy
If there is any presidential speech that has captured a place in popular culture, it is the Gettysburg Address, seemingly recited by school children for decades. The truth is, however, Lincoln’s most memorable words are now remembered by very few.
Of the 2,508 Americans taking ISI’s civic literacy test, 71% fail. Nationwide, the average score on the test is only 49%. The vast majority cannot recognize the language of Lincoln’s famous speech.
The test contains 33 questions designed to measure knowledge of America’s founding principles, political history, international relations, and market economy.
While the questions vary in difficulty, most test basic knowledge. Six are borrowed from U.S. government naturalization exams that test knowledge expected of all new American citizens. Nine are taken from the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests that the U.S. Department of Education uses to assess high school seniors. Three are drawn from an “American History 101” exam posted online by www.InfoPlease.com. Two were developed especially for this survey and the rest were drawn from ISI’s previous civic literacy tests.
The results reveal that Americans are alarmingly uninformed about our Constitution, the basic functions of our government, the key texts of our national history, and economic principles.
- Less than half can name all three branches of the government.
- Only 21% know that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” comes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
- Although Congress has voted twice in the last eight years to approve foreign wars, only 53% know that the power to declare war belongs to Congress. Almost 40% incorrectly believe it belongs to the president.
- Only 55% know that Congress shares authority over U.S. foreign policy with the president. Almost a quarter incorrectly believe Congress shares this power with the United Nations.
- Only 27% know the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States.
- Less than one in five know that the phrase “a wall of separation” between church and state comes from a letter by Thomas Jefferson. Almost half incorrectly believe it can be found in the Constitution.
Americans from all age groups, income brackets, and political ideologies fail the test of civic literacy.
- Americans age 25 to 34 score an average of 46% on the exam; Americans age 65 and over score 46%.
- Americans earning an annual income between $30,000 and $50,000 score an average of 46%; Americans earning over $100,000 score 55%.
- Liberals score an average of 49%; conservatives score 48%.
- Americans who go to church once a week score an average of 48%; Americans who never go to church score 50%.
|The Average Nationwide Grade on the Civic Literacy Test is an “F”|
|Americans nationwide fail the civic literacy test, scoring an average of 49%, or an “F.” This table shows the average score achieved by various groups.|
Widespread ignorance of our nation’s history and institutions is a worrisome sign for our nation’s future. As we shall see, today’s Americans share the conviction of the Founding Fathers that civic education is important—and they are right in this conviction. Respondents who score in the top third in civic literacy, the survey shows, are more likely than those who score poorly on the test to participate in the civic life of their communities and country.