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EDITORIAL: More disturbing news from the nation’s report card

Those well-steeped in our nation’s history long ago learned the inspiring story of how President George Washington delivered his stirring Gettysburg Address, a four-hour oration, in an effort to revive hope among Americans struggling during the Great Depression of the 1920s.

Or maybe not.

On Wednesday, the National Assessment of Educational Progress — the nation’s “report card” — released the results of standardized tests given last year to eighth graders across the country on civics and history. Turn away if you seek to avoid depressing news.

Just 13 percent of students met proficiency standards in history, meaning “they could explain major themes, periods, events, people, ideas and turning points in the country’s history,” according to The Wall Street Journal. About 20 percent reached proficiency in civics.

In other words, only a small percentage of American kids poised to enter high school probably would be able to identify more than two errors in this essay’s lead sentence, if they could identify any of the obvious mistakes at all.

The scores were the most miserable on record for a test that has been in existence for decades. In fact, students scored worse on these two subjects than in any other areas, including reading and math. “These data are a national concern,” Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, told reporters. “The health of our democracy depends on informed and engaged citizens.”

Various interests pointed fingers in an effort to place blame for this dismal development. The pandemic was an obvious culprit, and no doubt didn’t help. James Grossman of the American Historical Society cited “the falling quality of history and civics lessons taught in American schools, which has been fueled by political acrimony,” the Journal reported.

Fair enough. But acrimonious battles over curricula involving politically controversial issues such as race are meaningless to kids when they lack the basic facts upon which to build a foundation that supports critical thinking and leads to the examination of more complex — and even contentious — subject matter. The great failure of this nation’s public school system is that students aren’t learning even elementary skills when it comes to reading and mathematics or even the simplest of facts in terms of history and civics.

The current push to ensure students are exposed to a more complete and robust view of this nation’s history — warts and all — is wise and worthwhile. Yet it makes little sense if kids don’t first develop a grasp of the fundamentals before moving on to more challenging subject matter.

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