What High Schoolers Don't Know

What High Schoolers Don't Know

Primary sources exposed and explained.
Feb. 29 2008 4:09 PM

What High Schoolers Don't Know


When did Columbus set sail for the New World? Who wrote The Canterbury Tales? In the Bible, what is Job known for? Who was Adolf Hitler?

These aren't exactly brainteasers, but when the new education-advocacy group Common Core posed these and 30 similar questions about history and literature to 1,200 17-year-old high-school students (below on the following four pages), it discovered that American teenagers are "stunningly ignorant."


Common Core puts some of the blame on six years of George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" law, which forced schools to concentrate lessons on standardized-test measures for math and reading at the expense of education in the humanities. The organization debuted on Feb. 26 with a press conference that unveiled the findings in a glossy pamphlet titled Still at Risk, an allusion to the landmark 1983 education survey, A Nation At Risk. That earlier survey famously stated, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." Apparently, we lost.

The test posed a series of questions whose answers even the slowest-witted high-schoolers might reasonably be expected to know. But only one question (Who gave the "I Have A Dream" speech in 1963?, Page 3), yielded the correct response on a near-unanimous basis (97 percent). Only 61 percent knew what the Renaissance was (Page 2), and only half knew why the Federalist papers were written (Page 3). Fewer than half knew when the Civil War was fought (see below). And this test was multiple-choice!

To whom do we surrender?

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