It seems elementary: Before being awarded a diploma, high school students should know at least as much about their nation’s government and history as do immigrants seeking citizenship.
Do they? Considerable evidence exists that appallingly large numbers of students would not pass the exam of basic civic knowledge required for naturalization.
Think-tank studies in Arizona and Oklahoma found the percentages of high school seniors passing this rudimentary test way down in the single digits – below 4 percent. By contrast, 92 percent of immigrants passed on their first try.
The test asks basic questions: Who is in charge of the executive branch? What do we call the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution? The mark for passing is 6 correct answers – 60 percent.
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Ignorance doesn’t fade after school years. A new survey by The Annenberg Public Policy Center found that fewer than one-third of eighth grade students could identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence. And one in three adults could not name even one of the three branches of government – legislative, executive, judicial.
Now, a Civics Education Initiative led by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, among others, is urging state legislatures to require high school students to pass the Citizenship Test as a requirement for graduation.
As of last week’s commemoration of the 227th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, political and civic leaders in seven states – Arizona, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah – had citizen initiatives underway.
Different states are pursuing different models, including:
• Two Utah lawmakers said they definitely would sponsor a bill in the next session to require all the state’s students to pass the Citizenship Test before they could graduate.
• A South Carolina leadership group including former Democratic Gov. Richard Riley proposed giving students incentives, such as some sort of boost to their GPA, for taking and passing the test.
Apart from the impact on individual students, the most useful exercise might be for each and every state to administer the Test to all high-school juniors and then publicly release the pass/fail rates for state, districts, and schools. Would they dare? Could they stand the likely embarrassment?
Last year, the U.S. Education Department, claiming a budget crunch, canceled its American history and civics tests given in every state as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The U.S. Senate is set to take action on the Education Sciences Reform Act, which includes this program, where it could restore our single best tool to measure how well our schools teach history and civics.
An April 2013 Lexington Institute analysis found that more than half of states do not clearly define the academics required to become a certified history teacher.
Indeed, many states require candidates for teaching history to pass standardized (Praxis) social-studies tests containing only 15 to 20 percent U.S. history content.
Asking students to know a bare minimum about their country’s heritage clearly is not enough, but it could be a start toward restoring the study of history to its proper place in state-developed core curricula.
Robert Holland lives in Carolina Forest. He and Don Soifer are policy analysts for the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.