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Freedom of Ignorance : Students Do Poorly on Questions About Democracy

September 18, 1987|BOB POOL | Times Staff Writer

There was no celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Constitution on Thursday at a bicentennial office in Calabasas.

There, administrators of a test given to American teen-agers across the country were turning up results that show most of the youngsters have a dismal understanding of this country's framework of democracy.

The San Fernando Valley-based Center for Civic Education that gave the test scheduled a joint news conference today in Philadelphia with the federal Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution to reveal the unhappy findings.

Seven out of 10 teen-agers taking the multiple-choice exam last month did not know that the American political system derives its authority from the consent of the governed, officials of the center said Thursday.

Two-thirds of the youngsters did not know the importance of the Magna Carta or the essential difference between constitutional and dictatorial governments.

Sixty percent of those tested did not know the meaning of due process of law.

The findings were a gloomy counterpoint to Thursday's daylong celebration of the Constitution's bicentennial outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia. About 250,000 attended the ceremonies, which included a 200-second bell-ringing tribute that coincided with the hour that George Washington and 38 other founding fathers signed the document in 1787.

"Unfortunately, it's the parades and fireworks that get all the coverage," said Kerin Martin, administrative coordinator of the Center for Civic Education. "There aren't any fireworks going off around here."

The center's tests results were hardly a bombshell to educators, either.

Other recent surveys done in conjunction with the bicentennial have shown numerous gaps in the public's knowledge about the Constitution, according to Charles N. Quigley, the center's executive director. He will participate with former U.S. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger in today's Philadelphia meeting.

Said Evelyn Davis, one of Quigley's associates: "When I told my friends I was going back East for the 200th anniversary, they said, '200th anniversary of what? Didn't we already celebrate the bicentennial?' "

Officials at the Calabasas center said the test results will be used to help gauge the success of a five-year project that begins this fall. It is called the National Bicentennial Competition on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

$15-Million Program

The $15-million program--funded by Congress and co-sponsored by the Constitutional Bicentennial Commission--involves special civics lessons and tests in 10 selected 11th- and 12th-grade classrooms in each of the 435 congressional districts.

Administrators of the nonprofit center said the project is expected to spread quickly as school districts acquire their own copies of the printed workbooks and tests at a cost of $150 per classroom. Alabama has ordered enough for every student in the state, they said.

The program involves three to six weeks of instruction that lead to either competitive or noncompetitive testing. Top local winners in the competitive program will advance to state and national level contests, Martin said.

The program has the capacity to reach 9 million students each year during its planned five-year run, according to Quigley. It will end in 1992, when the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights is celebrated.

Last month's test contained 62 questions and was administrated to 620 summer school students at high schools in California, Hawaii, Nevada, Ohio and New York.

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