According to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, [PDF, 182pp] six in 10 high-school seniors lack the most rudimentary knowledge of American history.
The NAEP announcement could not possibly have taken anyone by surprise. Education Secretary Roderick Paige said that he was "shocked, shocked" to learn that no one knows anything. Paige declared that the situation is "intolerable" and "immediate steps" would be taken by the Department of Education to remedy the "abysmal" scores on history tests.
Paige's pronouncement is a dim echo of similar comments made by state and federal education bureaucrats for the last three decades. But every year, we graduate fewer and fewer well-rounded students.
Just the other day, I noticed two high-school students engaged in an animated discussion. They could not agree on the answer to the following: "Circle the one that doesn't belong: boy friend, girl friend, mother, grandmother." They had concluded that "boy friend" and "girl friend" obviously go together. That having been decided, they couldn't determine if "mother" or "grandmother" was the odd one out.
What does the Class of 2002 know? And what is the value of a high-school diploma if a senior doesn't know the cause of the Civil War?
According to Section 51225.3 of the California Education Code, graduating students will have taken courses in American government and civics. Further, according to the Code, they will have read and will be able to demonstrate some mastery of:
(a) The Declaration of Independence
(b) The United States Constitution, including the Bill of Rights
(c) Substantive selections from the Federalist Papers
(d) The Emancipation Proclamation
(e) The Gettysburg Address
(f) George Washington's Farewell Address.
Only the smallest percentage of graduating seniors could speak intelligently about all of these topics. The majority could give only scant information about one or two.
History is only one of the subjects where students come up short. Some graduates will be deficient in math; others in reading comprehension and still others in writing skills. Yet all walk away with diplomas.
How many, I wonder, could pass the General Education Development Test?
As farfetched as it may sound, the GED would be a stretch for many graduates.
To pass the GED, a student must successfully complete all five parts of the test: Language Arts, Writing, Social Studies, Science, Language Arts, Reading and Math.
While the Social Studies, Science and Reading are basic multiple choice comprehension questions that shouldn't pose much of a threat, a student still needs to know how to interpret maps, charts and political cartoons. Critical thinking skills are required.
Tests on grammar, essay writing and math would prove more challenging to most students.
Potential pitfalls in grammar include sentence structure, construction shifts and proper punctuation. Writing a coherent, grammatically correct essay of 250 would be problematic for some.
For those high-school seniors who struggled with Math, GED questions relating to geometry, algebra and data analysis would be difficult.
Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Jay P. Greene, who studies education policy, recently wrote that the GED certificate should not be equated with a high-school diploma. The GED is, according to Greene, a "test that dropouts can take to be given a second chance at a formal education."
Greene referenced studies that show GED holders to be "statistically indistinguishable" from high-school dropouts. On the whole, Greene found, GED recipients do not earn higher wages or do well if they attempt higher education.
And Greene criticized the GED policy of allowing test takers to retake any of the five tests as many as five times until they eventually pass.
What Greene did not factor in is that many who receive their GED are mature adults who have long been out of the work force or who have other compelling circumstances which mitigate against them mainstreaming.
I am not suggesting that the GED replace the high-school diploma. Nor am I encouraging high-school students to drop out to get a GED.
But if I were an employer, I'd know that an applicant with a GED could read and understand, could do basic math and could write a well-organized essay.
I would not necessarily know that if the applicant had a high-school diploma.
Taking an educated guess, I'll venture that 25% of the 2002 graduating class could not pass the GED on the first go around.
If I'm right, that casts doubt not on the value of the GED test but on the worth of a high-school diploma.
Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.