Is Making High School Students Pass Citizenship Test the Right Move?

A 2009 survey showed only 4 percent of Arizona high school students could correctly answer 60 of the 100 questions on the U.S. citizenship test.

That’s not good enough for the Arizona Legislature and they have done something about it.

But did they do the right thing?

Arizona state lawmakers have made their state the first of what could be 18 in America to require teenagers to pass the U.S. citizenship test to graduate from high school.

It’s the test immigrants have to take before they can move from a green card to a voter registration card.

North Dakota could become the second before the end of January.

But will this be just one more test that educators have to prepare kids for and one more exam loaded with information that students will forget as soon as possible?

Ted McConnell, the executive director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, is one of those who says the test won’t solve the problem of young adults who don’t understand how their local, state or federal governments work.

While he applauds the goals of the Joe Foss Institute, the group that is leading the drive for the civics exam legislation, McConnell told PJM he is afraid the Arizona-based organization is attacking the correct problem with the wrong solution.

The Arizona Legislature approved the civics education proposal Jan. 15, the same day similar legislation was OKed by the North Dakota state House. The North Dakota Senate is expected to follow suit.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) promised in his first State of the State address on Jan. 12 to win approval for the new civics exam requirement. Three days later, the Arizona Legislature made his promise come true.

“It’s a new year, and a new day for students here in Arizona and across the country who will now have the basic tools they need to become active, engaged citizens,” said Frank Riggs, the president and CEO of the Joe Foss Institute.

Beyond Arizona, 17 other states are considering this legislation.

North Dakota and Utah appear to be next in line, with legislators and supporters in those states eager to follow Arizona’s lead. The North Dakota House of Representatives passed the bill Jan. 15 by an 85-1 margin.

Democrat Rep. Gail Mooney cast the only “no” vote in the North Dakota state House. She told the Grand Forks Herald the civics exam would be just “one more level of testing (that) isn’t really going to accomplish the overall intended goal of civic-minded individuals.”

She is not the only one thinking that way.

"The folks who are civic educators and experts by and large are pushing for a much, much more well-rounded approach," Paul Baumann, director of the National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement at the Education Commission of the States, a state-led research organization, told the Associated Press.

Put Ted McConnell on that list.

He said that while the hearts of those who support the civics exam initiative are in the right place, what they are proposing doesn’t cover what he sees as the three basic elements of improving civic learning.

The civics education test would help students develop civic knowledge, he admitted. But McConnell said it would not help students develop civic skills.

“For instance, the student needs to know that if I am upset with the streets in my town, I don’t write my congressman, I contact my city council,” McConnell said.

In other words, students have to learn how the system works.

At the same time, McConnell said students need to develop a “disposition to be engaged in the affairs of their community, their state and/or nation.”

McConnell is also afraid the civics test will take away from the time teachers have left in the school day to teach civic education and social studies.

“It will be nothing more than a drill and kill exercise in dry rote memorization of facts that students will quickly forget and will do nothing to help develop a sense of patriotism, an understanding and respect for things like the rule of law, and an appreciation for the founding period that led to this great Republic we enjoy,” McConnell said.

He believes civics education should involve a “sustained, systematic approach to civic learning,” which would include traditional American history, economics, and geography, along with the study of federal, state and local government.

Baby Boomers might say McConnell’s civics curriculum seems reminiscent of the way social studies was taught 50 years ago. Their memories have not failed them (yet).

McConnell said what has failed us is the 21st century public education system.

“Each of these subjects suffered from a decline in attention in recent years,” he said. “There has been a decrease in course offerings in middle and high schools, and a tremendous decrease in the time afforded to these subjects in the elementary grades.”

The Center for Education Policy conducted surveys of school districts across the nation that showed the time spent on McConnell’s favorite subjects in elementary schools was reduced from an average of 2,239 minutes per week in 2000 to 164 minutes per week in 2008, a 93 percent decrease.

He admitted that schools also need to do a better job of teaching math, science and English.

“But we have to remember every single one of these students is going to be a citizen who have to understand their rights and responsibilities,” stressed McConnell.

“Knowledge of our system of government, and our rights and responsibilities as citizens, is not passed down through the gene pool,” McConnell said, quoting the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools co-chair, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner. “It has to be taught and we have work to do."