I used to introduce my undergraduate Law and Public Policy class by administering a test–20 questions drawn from the citizenship test immigrants have to pass in order to become U.S. citizens.

I stopped because it was too depressing. Foreign students regularly passed the test; native-born students just as routinely failed it. So I’ve been intrigued by the recent effort to require American kids to pass the test in order to graduate from high school. Arizona was the first state to pass such a measure, and Sen. Kruse has advocated doing so in Indiana. 

Similar measures are under consideration in 15 states, according to Sam Stone, political director for the Civics Education Initiative, an Arizona-based non-profit group that is lobbying for the civics test across the country.

Stone told the newspaper that about 92 percent of immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship pass the test on their first try, but as few as 5 percent of high school students passed the test.

“Those are really poor numbers,” he said. “No matter how much knowledge you have, if you don’t know how to use that knowledge within our system of government, it’s not much good,” he said. “Our government was designed to be run by informed, engaged citizens. We have an incredibly dangerous form of government for people who don’t know how it works.”

No kidding!

So what are the pros and cons of requiring the citizenship test? The biggest pro is pretty obvious: it shines an important light on this country’s abysmal neglect of civic education. At the very least, students will have to learn the material covered by the test. If the past few years of high-stakes testing have shown us anything, it is that we don’t teach anything that isn’t tested.

And that leads to the “con.” A quibble, really.

In this era of “reform,” schools teach to the test, and a number of the questions on this particular test have a very tenuous connection to how our government actually works. (Knowing the date the Declaration of Independence was signed is nice, but distinguishing between the Declaration and the Constitution and understanding the role of each is more central to informed citizenship.) I would hope that passage of the measure–which I support!–would include a provision for updating the test as research gives us more information about what sorts of knowledge correlate most closely to civic participation and literacy.

But by all means, let’s send the message to young Americans that we expect them to actually know something about the country they will ultimately control.


  1. I passed the brief “citizenship test” my cousin posted on Facebook. But…I was educated in IPS in the 1940’s and 1950’s. I believe my generation and most of our children could pass the test; it is the following generations who would fail in large numbers. This says much about the quality of public education in this city years ago, what is the percentage of public vs private eduction of the students you have in class today? This might be an interesting fact to pursue.

  2. When I was a high school student in Louisville, the emphasis was on learning science and math, maybe at the expense of civics(?). We were in the race to conquer space before the Russians. My recollections of history and civics classes is the subject was presented at face value, without much effort to relate it to the real world and our civic responsibilities and obligations. Wish I could do it over, maybe with different teachers.

  3. While we are at it…. How about testing folks who run for elective office? If a person wants to work in the County, State or Federal government, THEY should be able to pass the test. That might be a good place to start.

  4. Patmcc – you beat me to it. I also believe that this should be a requirement for public employment. It should absolutely be required of anyone running for an elected office.

  5. Maybe Mike Delphi might discover that nullification laws are unconstitutional, and that it’s inappropriate for a legislator to propose one if he has promised to uphold the Constitution.

  6. As a nation, we have demanded precious little of our kids’ education. It is long past time for the civics test for high school graduation and most assuredly the test is essential for qualifying for elected office.

  7. Common Core is controversial where I hang out and too much testing is an oft repeated mantra. When I was in school I tried the too much testing refrain on my teachers but back then communications came down to students not up from them.

    In both cases I believe that the feedback that students actually learned what was necessary may be a pain but, IMO, is an essential part of education.

    I understand the passion here for civics literacy but what’s closer to my heart and brain is science literacy because there is ample evidence that those on the low end of that scale are so easily misled by pseudoscience that their voting is easy to buy through big media advertising like Fox News.

    In the end the villain is ignorance. Today the knowledge of mankind is growing so fast that we all get more ignorant daily in terms of what we know vs what is known.

    Education was designed for simpler times and everyone is too afraid to make any but tiny changes. That’s not going to cut it.

    So, education is another chink in democracy’s armor that will probably get bigger before collapsing under its own weight and revolutionized.

    Perhaps the anthropocene era is the result of individuals outpacing culture and the growing gap between the knows and the don’t knows. That sounds unstable to me.

  8. I believe that we need to educate everyone more on how our government works and how to do your civic duty. That being said adding another test doesn’t mean it will be taught or learned any better. I believe that we must make voting and being informed more attractive and easier. Some of the same people that are decrying the lack of civic involvement are also the same ones that are putting more restrictions and road blocks on being able to vote. People are only going to want knowledge and take the time to educated themselves if they can see that it will help them. Making it harder for certain groups to vote, making their votes less likely to make much of a difference by gerrymandering does not say their input is important. Yes educate people but also stop the nonsense of making our ability to have a voice in our government harder.

  9. What good would that do? You’ll have hacks like Darrell Issa writing the test, so all it would do is reinforce more jingoism. The school district just north of the one I live in hired a science teacher who got fired from another school district for teaching ‘intelligent design’ or whatever dog whistle name they have for teaching NOT evolution, and a big deal was made about how lucky they were to have such a principled teacher. But, not to worry. With the current voucher explosion, every yutz in town can get 25 students, teach sunday school, be submitted to NO testing, and just suck up that voucher money. Since it is a school with decreasing enrollment, they are being phased out anyway. It’s kind of like the Alabama sheriffs who get to keep the money ‘left over’ from feeding prisoners on $1.76 a day. But the whole point is to break the public education system, and Indiana is there.

  10. Girl Cousin, you just mentioned another one of the issues that are piling up in this whole affair. They hire a science teacher who knows nothing about testing or psychometrics, or even how to construct a test, but thinks he knows it all because he’s done it before (his agenda notwithstanding). Then they end up with all kinds of weird data which is unconnected and uncorrelated with anything but their scores. No validity. No reliability. Means nothing. This whole Indiana thing is driven by ideologues, not people who have a clue about what they are doing, which will set the whole system up for a series of huge law suits in which people will walk off with settlements, because the state is being negligent. After all, Mitch set the stage for it when he decided that the state should take over the general fund, which means a declaration stating responsibility. But just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you know what you are doing, so the state will be on the hook for the entire string of disasters that is guaranteed to happen. Kansas is now beginning to know what trouble means, while Indiana is starting on that trail.

  11. Sheila is right about civics education being left out of the curriculum. (Social studies teaches HOW THE WORLD WORKS, so why would we want THAT???) Girl Cousin is cynical as usual, with good reason. (She and I witnessed Tony Bennett presenting to the Senate Finance Committee, where he assured us all that standardized test results can be used for formative, summative, AND norm-referenced assessment, thus proving that he is an idiot.) So, Stuart is proven right.

    When my husband took the citizenship test, he was asked “What is the meaning of the Declaration of Independence?”, and was dinged when he answered “Everyone is equal” instead of “All MEN are created equal”. So, Sheila, it depends on the test, for sure. I can’t say that I can endorse an exit exam if my well-educated teacher husband got no credit for that answer. (BTW, he passed, 9 out of 10, and is now a US Citizen.)

  12. Immigrant’s Wife: Congratulations to your husband on becoming a citizen of these United States!

  13. I don’t believe only 5% can pass that. I hear that number thrown around, but no way. Missing one on that test is difficult.

  14. Re: Testing
    Consider this fact, documented by the IN DOE. Before an Indiana student can receive an IN High School Diploma, the student must demonstrate a level of mastery on three End of Course Assessments (ECA’s or EOC’s in education jargon) in the following: 1) English 10, 2) Algebra I, and 3) Biology I.

    As you notice, there is no mandatory IN State assessment, End of Course Assessment, designed to gauge any level of mastery in any course in the IN Social Studies curriculum, more specifically in Government or as most would say, Civics. Different states require, by state law, different End of Course Assessments as per an example from our neighbor to the south, Kentucky, where each student is required to show mastery in four different subject areas before receiving a high school diploma. In KY, students must demonstrate mastery in these subject areas: 1) Algebra II, 2) English 10, 3) Biology, and 4) US History.

    There are a few states where a student who’s not aspiring for a college prep level high school diploma can take a Social Studies course called ‘Street Law’ in lieu of Government/Civics. Some other students simply take the course as an elective because it is practical and real. In SC, the South Carolina Bar Association sponsors this course, trains the Social Studies teachers, provides the curriculum that is aligned with the SC State Standards. The attached document outlines the course and provides the alignment with the State Standards. http://www.scbar.org/public/files/docs/LRE/streetlaw.pdf

    Street Law originated back in 1972 when a group of young lawyers at Georgetown University realized the need for a practical high school course whereby students could receive instruction in matters of the law and practical matters in life that ultimately could prepare them for a more successful experience as an adult citizen.

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