September 27, 2007

Cornell Ranks Last in Civic Knowledge Study

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According to a study commissioned by the Intercollegiate Studies Institution, Cornell University students rank last on the civic knowledge gained over four years at college.
50 colleges nationwide participated in the civic literacy exam that was conducted by the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy. Eastern Connecticut State University came out as number 1 and Cornell University as number 50.
The rankings were based on the amount of “value added” to a student’s knowledge, which means the amount by which students’ scores increased over their four years at college, according to the ISI.
American history, American political thought, America and the world, and the market economy were the four main subjects used to test civic knowledge.
Entering Cornell freshmen scored an average of 61.90 percent on the test, while Cornell Seniors who took the exam scored an average of 56.95 percent on the test. Thus, over their four years at Cornell students lost 4.95 percent in civic knowledge.
Dr. Gary Scott, a senior research fellow from ISI, expressed great concern in Cornell’s negative value added score.
“If you don’t gain knowledge at institutions of learning, something is amiss. We believe there is something real happening at Cornell that needs to be improved,” Scott said.
The ISI chose to emphasize the increase, or in some cases, decrease, of students’ scores, rather than the scores themselves.
For example, Cornell’s poor ranking on value added is emphasized, not Cornell’s ranking as number 19 based on the mean senior score alone.
The focus is on value added because, as was stated in the ISI’s report, “As with voting, a student’s overall civic knowledge has no relationship to his likelihood to participate in political and civic activities. What matters … is how much the student’s civic knowledge increases.”
The test itself, as described by Scott, consisted of 60 objective multiple choice questions with five answers to choose from and maintained a large range between basic facts, concepts, and analytical reasoning.
“At Cornell, we actually had one of the largest sample sizes of all the colleges in the study,” Scott said. “The test was sensitive to gains no matter where a student’s knowledge started.”
Nevertheless, some current Cornell students do not think the study truly demonstrates anything significant.
Mazdaq Asgary ’08 said that while he has lost basic American history knowledge studying at Cornell, he has gained critical thinking skills and knowledge in other fields.
“I really don’t think it’s a negative thing that we don’t have this information memorized. Rote memorization doesn’t get us anywhere, but critical thinking does,” he added. “We’re being trained to be the leaders or executives in the fields we go into. Being resourceful is more important, not to just memorize facts.”
Scott disagrees and said that the test is not simply memorization, and that it does in fact require analytical skills.
“Students’ scores on the civic test were highly correlated with SAT scores which further demonstrates that reasoning skills were present on our test,” he said.
“We would hope that Cornell could improve on various factors,” he continued. “We would challenge Cornell to two things: for students to take more courses and for these courses to improve.”
Despite Scott’s proposed solution, the answer to this problem is not simple.
Some Cornell students feel they should only have to take courses that are relevant to their major or that they are personally interested in.
“It should be left into hands of students to see what subjects they want to pursue. While I definitely have room to expand my knowledge in American history, I don’t know how realistic it is that I will be able to take these courses since I’m a bio major,” said Dan Osario ’11.
Scott argues that while it may be hard to find room for civic knowledge courses in one’s schedule they are still very important and should not be neglected.
“In a good liberal arts education all parts of knowledge should be advanced, including civic knowledge,” Scott said. “Students’ kindergarten through twelfth grade education gave them a basis in civic knowledge, and it is up to colleges to expand that knowledge.”
Last year in the same study, Rhodes College, a private liberal arts school in Tennessee, ranked first, while Johns Hopkins University came in dead last.
Cornell students performed third worst on the value added rankings. They were joined by Yale, Duke and Brown at the bottom of the list, similar to this year’s rankings.
Cornell freshmen received a mean score of 59.4 percent on historical knowledge, as compared to 61.9 percent this year. Seniors received an average of 56.1 percent, as compared to 56.95 this year.
In terms of actual scores, both freshmen and senior Cornell students showed a slight improvement from last year to this year.
Yet, Cornell dropped in rankings, according to value added, because the difference in senior and freshmen scores increased.
Mary Beth Norton, director of undergraduate studies in history spoke to The Sun last year regarding the study. She emphasized student responsibility for the results rather than the responsibility of Cornell.
“At the college level people are supposed to follow what they want to follow … Our responsibility is to offer students classes. We are not an agency of the federal government,” she said.
Professor Laurence Moore, acting chair of the history department, said last year, “As a historian, I of course think that Cornell students ought to know something about history. But then I think that they ought to know something about a lot of things.”
“History is one part of a liberal arts education, but only one part,” he wrote.