Two states require citizenship test for graduation

Advocates say exams better prepare students to participate in a democratic society
By: | Issue: March, 2015
February 18, 2015

Arizona and North Dakota in January became the first two states requiring high school graduates to take a U.S. citizenship exam.

Legislators in 14 others states recently introduced similar initiatives in a what’s been labeled as an effort to better prepare students to participate in a democratic society.

Questions are drawn from the same test that new immigrants must take to become U.S. citizens. To get their diploma, students must correctly answer 60 of 100 questions, including, “What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress?” “We elect a president for how many years?” and “Who is the governor of your state now?”

“It’s 100 basic questions about U.S. history and geography that are simple facts everyone should know, but study after study shows that we don’t know them that well,” says Sam Stone, executive director of the Civics Education Initiative, part of the nonprofit Joe Foss Institute and a primary supporter of this legislation.

A 2014 survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that only about one-third of adult respondents could name all three branches of government, and one-third could not name a single one.

District flexibility

Arizona and North Dakota will begin giving the test in 2016-17. Local districts will decide when and how to prepare students for the exam, which can be taken any time between freshman and senior year of high school. Teachers have the flexibility to break the test into shorter quizzes given throughout the year. Students also can take the exam as many times as necessary to pass.

No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top’s focus on math and English, along with the more recent boost for STEM education, has pushed civics education to the back burner, Stone says.

“We want this to be the first concrete step in a renewal of civics education nationwide,” he adds. “Anything schools can do to give kids a comprehensive understanding of how our country works is fantastic.”

Critics say the tests will not do enough to engage students in civic thinking.

“If all we needed to do to prepare young people to participate politically was have them memorize information, we would be living in a different world,” says Diana Hess, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation, which funds education research. “It doesn’t test the complex understanding we want students to learn in high-quality civics education.”

Civics classes should include the following elements, Hess says:

Discussion and debate about contemporary political issues
Simulations to engage students in real-world understanding of political concepts, such as a mock Supreme Court trial or legislative session
Service learning in the school or community

Memorizing the type of information found on the test, such as the names of the Supreme Court justices, is secondary to understanding the complexities of the system, Hess adds.

Civics education most often appears in social studies classes, but can be infused into any course, Hess says. For example, science classes can discuss public policy related to research, and math classes can discuss how statistics relate to current events.