It Seems Like a No-Brainer to Me, But Some People Oppose Citizenship Tests for High School Students

Lawmakers in a dozen states have drafted legislation that would require students to pass the same test new citizens take when going through the naturalization process. Arizona and North Dakota have already made the test a requirement for high school graduation. Students must answer 100 factual questions about our government and our nation’s history, including these:

  • What is the supreme law of the land?
  • The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words?
  • What is one right or freedom from the First Amendment?
  • What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?
  • Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the federal government. What is one power of the federal government?
  • During the Cold War, what was the main concern of the United States?

If you graduated from high school before the 1990s you can probably recite the answers to these questions without much effort because they were drilled into your head in your history and government classes (or by Schoolhouse Rock! videos). Everyone back then agreed that students should know — and memorize — facts like these as a way to promote good citizenship.

But some education experts believe this is a terrible idea. Forcing students to “regurgitate facts” is an antiquated education method, they say, one that will stunt students’ learning and inhibit their ability to solve community problems when they’re out in the real world.

Joseph Kahne, a professor of education at Mills College in Oakland, California, recently wrote in Education Week:

We need young citizens who are committed to helping make their communities better and who can assess policy proposals, not merely youths who know how many voting members of the U.S. House of Representatives there are. Google provides the answer to any question on the naturalization test in seconds.

He said students learn more when they discuss current events and “are asked to form and justify their own opinions on controversial issues.” He also thinks that when young people have opportunities to volunteer in their communities and “reflect on the experience,” they are more likely to volunteer in their communities in the future.

This is typical of the Progressive educational philosophy: short on historical facts and propositional truths, long on discussion, finding meaning in experience, and validating everyone’s opinions — whether or not they’re right.

While it’s great to sit around in rap sessions discussing the Founders’ motives for including “We the people” in the Preamble of the Constitution (and I enthusiastically encourage everyone to do so), the words are such a foundational concept upon which our entire form of government is built that if you have to google the answer to such a simple question, I would suggest you haven’t been intellectually equipped for the hard work of self-government. Check out the video above, where only one of fifteen “born and bred” Americans who were interviewed on the streets of Miami were able to pass the citizenship tests, with most unable to answer simple questions about the name of the vice president and who wrote the Constitution.

Kahne goes on to say that “democracy thrives when citizens think critically and deeply about civic and political issues, when they consider the needs and priorities of others, and when they engage in informed action—not when they memorize a few facts.”

Students don’t need to be community organized and made to participate in “informed action” (whatever that means) in order to be prepared to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens. Instead, they need to be imbued with knowledge, facts, and truth. If more students could answer the 100 questions on the citizenship test, we’d at least know we’re sending the electorate to the polls with a basic knowledge of our history and the way our government functions (or at least how it was designed to function).