Immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship must pass a simple exam on civics and history facts. In Arizona and North Dakota, all students will have to pass the citizenship exam to qualify for a high school diploma.
Requiring the citizenship test is a good idea, editorializes USA Today.
Some questions are easy or trivial. But many about voting, the First Amendment, states’ rights and the Supreme Court offer jumping-off points for enticing discussions about current events. . . . The test can provide a floor on civics learning. It doesn’t have to set the ceiling.
The test trivializes civics education, responds Peter Levine, associate dean for research at Tufts’ College of Citizenship and Public Service. It’s easy to memorize the right answers with a little cramming.
More than 90 percent of high school graduates have taken a semester-long civics course and most have devoted a year to studying U.S. history, Levine writes.
Then why do so many adults fail basic questions about the U.S. political system? Because we have forgotten what we learned in civics class. Too often, the subject wasn’t inspiring or challenging and didn’t build habits of following and discussing the news.
The problem with civics is not that we fail to teach it. The problem is that civics is often viewed as a set of disconnected facts, not as a challenging and inspiring subject that will continue to interest us after high school.
For example, the citizenship exam asks how many constitutional amendments have been passed, writes Levine. “You don’t need to understand reasons for or against those amendments, or have any sense of why they were important” as long as you’ve memorized the right answer, which is 27.
Required civics classes and tests have little impact, if students don’t go “deeper,” argues a Jobs for the Future paper. Some students — usually the collegebound — “participate in high-quality service learning programs, collaborative research projects, student-produced newspapers, classroom debates, mock trials, model legislatures, and the like.” Most students don’t learn much that’s memorable.
My uncle and aunt helped a young Chinese friend study for the citizenship exam. The three of them knew the line of succession to the presidency down to the postmaster general. Which is trivia. If we strengthened the exam for new Americans, it might serve as a useful screen for high school students. Otherwise, it’s an absurdly low bar.