Blog: The Educated Reporter

Should Citizenship Test Be Used to Measure High Schoolers’ Civic Knowledge?

I was intrigued by Robert Pondiscio’s proposal over at The Atlantic, recommending that every high schooler in America demonstrate the same knowledge of the nation’s history and laws as adult individuals applying for citizenship.

Impossible! Not fair! Too difficult! Actually the bar is already set quite low, as Pondiscio — executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a nonprofit initiative that focuses on the value of civics education — points out. The federally required citizenship test has 10 questions — drawn from a list of 100 – and applicants need to correctly answer at least six of them. Now, math isn’t my strong suit but even I know that’s a score of 60 percent. Under most circumstances in many classrooms that would be considered a less-than-inspired performance.

Pondiscio contends setting, and meeting, this modest goal would be a boost to the self-confidence of the nation’s public schools, particularly in this No Child Left Behind era of “moon shot” aspirations. “Yes, let’s have a moon shot,” Pondiscio writes. “But let’s also, with this nation-wide citizenship test, show we can safely walk everyone across the street to the launching pad.”

Why does civic knowledge matter? It’s actually one of reasons we even have public schools. The core purpose of public education was to create an informed and engaged citizenry, one that would see the value in sharing the responsibility for maintaining the republic. If that sounds hokey to you, consider this from Pondiscio:

At a conference on civic education at Harvard Law School last week, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter described the U.S. Constitution as a value system. The loss of history and our civic ignorance, he noted is “a defeat of that value system.” A “disuniting tendency is built into the very fabric of the U.S.,” he noted. Our shared history and civic ideals are the forces that keep us from flying apart. We lose them at our peril.

A daunting report entitled Fault Lines in Our Democracy came out last year and examined answers students gave on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as “The Nation’s Report Card.” The ETS Center for Research on Human Capital and Education determined that only 27 percent of fourth-graders could identify the purpose of the U.S. Constitution and only 22 percent of eighth-graders could recognize a role played by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The report’s authors also created a “civic engagement index” for adults, based on whether individuals voted in elections and took part in certain volunteer activities. The average score was 1.5 on a scale from zero (did none of the activities) to five (did all of the activities. Older adults with most education and the highest income levels were the most likely to vote.The report’s authors conclude that improving high school graduation rates would in turn boost voter turnout. They also suggest policymakers consider making voter registration a requirement for graduation.

When the report came out, I spoke with Derek Vandergrift, a history teacher at Waltham High School in Massachusetts and a Milken Educator of the Year. He said one side effect of No Child Left Behind was the triaging of academic priorities by public schools. Subjects such as history and civics became less important than reading, writing and mathematics.

“The three most important resources schools have are qualified teachers, time and money,” Vandergrift said. “Over the life of NCLB, I’ve watched as resources were shifted away from social studies to other areas of the curriculum that would be subject to a state assessment.”

Civics is still a required course for most U.S. high schools. In the ETS study, most 12th graders said they had taken at least one course in civics during their high school career. Additionally, eighth-graders reported “considerable” exposure to civics topics in their own studies. At the same time many federal resources for civics education are drying up, Vandergrift told me. He was hopeful when President Obama announced plans for a Master Teacher Corps to serve as mentors and leaders to their peers. But that hope turned to disappointment when Vandergrift learned the corps would be limited to teachers of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. 

“Talented and committed educators, given time and resources, can do the work necessary to raise student achievement in History, social science, and civics,” Vandergrift told me in a follow-up email exchange Wednesday. 

I’m not sure that schools need yet another assessment hurdle to clear  – even one as well-intentioned and potentially “passable” as the citizenship test. Maybe schools would be better off focusing that time on encouraging students to find opportunities for actual civic engagement, and letting the knowledge follow?

I decided to try the practice version of the citizenship test. Over the course of eight or nine different versions, I did fine with questions about the executive branch, Martin Luther King Jr., and the requirements for Selective Service registration. I did get tripped up when I thought something about the Constitutional Convention was a trick question (Here’s a hint: It wasn’t).