A national survey of adults found only 15 percent of Americans could correctly note the year the U.S. Constitution was written -- 1787.

New survey finds Georgians don’t know much about history

Nothing like starting off the week of President’s Day with a survey showing most adult Georgians flub basic U.S. history.  

Georgians are not alone. Nationally, only four in 10 Americans could pass the test that used civics and history questions from the U.S. citizenship exam, according to a poll by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation

Among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, Vermonters were the only people able to pass the multiple-choice test required in the application process to become an American citizen. Georgia ranked sixth worst in the nation, just ahead of Mississippi. 

You can take a practice test here at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. (I did and missed one question where I overlooked a key “only” in the phrasing. Then, I got carried away and took two more and scored 100. And then I tried to get everyone in my family to take the tests and began to shout out questions at them. Don’t go there.)

Among the questions that flummoxed respondents: Only 15 percent could correctly note the year the U.S. Constitution was written (1787) and only 25 percent knew how many amendments there are to the U.S. Constitution (27).

A quarter didn’t know freedom of speech was guaranteed under the First Amendment, and 57 percent failed to identify Woodrow Wilson as the commander in chief during World War I.

Here is the official release on the survey: ­ 

Just one in three Georgians, or 33 percent, earned a passing grade on history questions from the U.S. citizenship test. The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that only in Vermont could a majority (53 percent) pass; in the lowest performing state, only 27 percent were able to pass. 

Even more disturbing, only 27 percent of those under the age of 45 nationally were able to demonstrate a basic understanding of American history. Nationally, only four in 10 Americans passed the exam. 

Three percent of Georgians scored an A; 8 percent received a B; 11 percent a C; and 12 percent a D on the 20-question survey. 

“Unfortunately, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has validated what studies have shown for a century: Americans don’t possess the history knowledge they need to be informed and engaged citizens,” WW Foundation President Arthur Levine said. 

“American history education is not working, as students are asked to memorize dates, events, and leaders, which the poll results shows are not retained in adulthood,” Levine said. “Based on our research, this is not an issue of whether high school history teachers are adequately prepared or whether kids study American history in school. The answer to both questions is yes. This is an issue of how we teach American history. 

“Now it is too often made boring and robbed of its capacity to make sense of a chaotic present and inchoate future. Instead, knowledge of American history must serve as an anchor in a time when change assails us, a laboratory for studying the changes that are occurring and a vehicle for establishing a common bond when social divisions are deep. This requires a fundamental change in how American history is taught and learned to make it relevant to our students lives, captivating, and inclusive to all Americans.” 

The top states after Vermont are Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana and Virginia. The five lowest performing states are: Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky and Louisiana at the bottom of the list.

These 50-state results, along with the national survey conducted in the fall by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, demonstrate that a waning knowledge of American history may be one of the greatest educational challenges facing the U.S. As a result, the Foundation is launching a major national initiative to transform how American history is learned today, providing high school students with an interactive digital platform intended to make American history more interesting and appreciated by all learners, particularly those who do not see the importance history plays in the now and tomorrow. 

Relying on the latest developments in cognitive learning, the Woodrow Wilson American History Initiative will offer experiential learning opportunities such as digital games, videos, and graphic novels. Building on the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s HistoryQuest Fellowship professional development program for social students and civics teachers, the Initiative will also provide resources and learning opportunities for K–12 history teachers to improve their instructional practice.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
X