Sunday, October 19, 2008

What Three Questions?

If you were designing a three-question test of political knowledge, what would you ask?

The Pew Center, famous for its polling and political knowledge quizzes, those the following:
  1. What party controls the U.S. House of Representatives?
  2. Who is the Secretary of State?
  3. Who is the Prime Minster of Great Britain?

Let's look at these. The first is a standard question that taps current political events knowledge and is the kind of information one picks up easily by even a casual exposure to the news. Partisans will do particularly well on this one, which perhaps is why viewers of Hannity and Colmes or listeners of Rush Limbaugh scored the highest of any media use group.

But the last two are a different matter.

Prompting with an office and asking for a name is much more difficult than the flip side, first giving a name and then asking for an office. It's a cognitively more difficult task. In my perfect three-question index of political knowledge, I might include one of this kind of question, but never two. Overall people did less well on this question. Fifty-three percent got the House question right, 42 percent accurately answered the Secretary of State question.

The last one is the real discriminator, to borrow from testing theory. We know Americans suck at geography and international news, so that's a negative right off. Add the "name-first" option and you know the numbers are gonna be bad. And indeed they are, with only 28 percent managing to answer #3 correctly. You'd expect different media to predict #3 than #1 and indeed this is the case, with readers of Atlantic/New Yorker scoring the highest

My point? I think this three-item index needs improving. I'd keep the U.S. House question, I'd keep one political actor question, and I'd add one "civics textbook" type question. I'll get more into that another time, but I'd prefer a more balanced index and not one with two of the three questions the rather difficult "office-first" order.

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