Louisiana residents have grown sadly accustomed to ranking last on a lot of good lists and first on a lot of bad lists — those rankings that attempt to quantify, in a number of ways, the civic health of local communities.

Even so, we were stung by the news that Louisiana came in dead-last on a recent survey in which Americans were quizzed with the kinds of questions that appear on citizenship tests.

Those tests are given to immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship. Americans endowed with citizenship by birth aren’t required to take such a test, of course. But as a point of pride and practicality, we should expect all grown Americans to know at least as much about their government as those applying for citizenship in the greatest country on earth.

When the nonprofit, nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation conducted its national survey, only 27 percent of Louisianans earned a passing grade — the worst performance of any state in the nation, including the District of Columbia.

Lincoln Park Strategies conducted the survey for the Foundation. It involved 41,000 interviews among adults nationwide. The margin of error is approximately plus or minus 1 percent.

Nationwide, the results were far from encouraging. Only in Vermont did a majority of respondents, 53 percent, pass. Only four in 10 nationally could demonstrate a grasp of the basic principles of government.

Four percent of Louisiana residents scored an A; 6 percent received a B; 9 percent a C; and 9 percent a D on the 20-question survey.

The reasons for Louisiana’s abysmal performance seem pretty obvious. A state with high rates of basic illiteracy can’t hope to score well on civics literacy, either.

But in assessing the survey results, Woodrow Wilson Foundation President Arthur Levine noted other challenges for civics learning. “American history education is not working, as students are asked to memorize dates, events, and leaders, which the poll results show 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 … 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.”

That’s a tall order, but one that can’t be ignored. In Louisiana, especially, we have a lot of catching up to do.

— (The Baton Rouge) Advocate

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