Could you answer this test question correctly?

“Which of the following is a right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution?”

A. Right to public education.

B. Right to health care.

C. Right to trial by a jury.

D. Right to vote.

Or how about this essay question concerning a proclamation by George Washington, saying the nation should “with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers” in a military conflict pitting Austria, Prussia, Sardinia, Great Britain and the Netherlands against France? The question asks for one reason why he would believe such a policy was necessary.

Both are listed as sample questions concerning civics and history on the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, test given every four years to eighth graders nationwide. The test was administered in 2022, but the results were released this week.

These exams have been dubbed the nation’s report card, and we all should be glad this is one report card we don’t have to take home to show our parents. 

Only 13% scored proficient in U.S. history, while 22% were proficient in civics. Last fall, math and reading scores were released, and they were down significantly, as well. Only 26% of eighth graders were proficient in math, and 31% were proficient in reading. 

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The largest drops came among students who performed the worst, while high-performing students stayed about the same. 

The question is, when is it time to sound the alarm bells and admit the education system is failing? When do we begin to worry about the gulf between high- and low-performing students and how that might play out in future class divisions? Are we letting fights over “woke” ideology distract us from the big picture?

Utah recently passed a law allowing scholarships to private schools. Choice is good, and this, no doubt, will help many students, but it’s not the total answer. These tests, administered under the Department of Education, involved 15,800 students from both public and private schools nationwide.

Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, told The Washington Post this should be a “Sputnik moment,” referring to the first successful Soviet satellite launched in 1957, which spurred a national effort to establish a space program. 

It’s time “to say the schools aren’t doing their part to prepare American citizens,” he said. “This should be an alarm bell, a call to do something different.”

But will it be?

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It’s natural to want to blame COVID-19, with its notorious online classes, for these results. And while that may have been a factor, the history scores have been falling since 2014. As former North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue, who chairs NAEP’s governing board, told the Post, COVID-19 “can’t become the scapegoat for the fact that our students are not achieving at grade level.” 

In other words, it’s not fair for a generation of students whose lives happened to intersect with a pandemic to have to be deficient in learning for the rest of their lives.

I tend to believe Deseret News readers are smarter than average, so you probably aced the two questions at the start of this column. 

The answer to the first one is C, the right to a trial by a jury. None of the others is guaranteed by the Constitution, although I’ve heard plenty of interest groups, pundits and politicians describe each of them as a right. 

Students need to be equipped with an understanding of this principle if they are to make sense of the loud debates that will swirl about them as adults.

The test’s website said 45% gave the right answer, but 39% picked the right to vote, instead.

Several responses could be accepted for the second question. President Washington wanted to maintain trade with all parties in the war. He worried the United States was too weak at the time to fight a war. He wanted to keep from dividing the nation and his own cabinet over which side to support, and he wanted his country to remain neutral in foreign conflicts.

Only 25% of students submitted an acceptable, complete response.

I included those questions because I wonder how many adults nationwide could pass the test proficiently, as well. Thomas Jefferson famously said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

This isn’t a problem that concerns only the eighth grade. The Brookings Institution last year reported that 65% of community college students have to take at least one remedial course to catch up to college level studies. But one should not need to attend college to receive the kind of education necessary to undertake the work of citizenship.

And I’m guessing too few adults at all education levels understand how the nation’s government works.

Reforming education will require stepping above the normal liberal-conservative talking points and the usual teachers union rhetoric. It will require data-based, good-faith efforts absent rancor and demagoguery.

But that won’t happen unless this really is a “Sputnik” moment, or a “Pearl Harbor” moment, or any other equivalent metaphor for a moment when Americans truly united in a cause.