Some States to Begin Using Naturalization Test in High Schools

High school students in some states will soon have to pass a civics exam—the same exam used to quiz immigrants who want to become United States citizens—in order to graduate.

In January, Arizona became the first state to require the test, starting with the 2016-17 school year. Idaho, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah followed suit and enacted what is often referred to as the Civics Education Initiative. The Louisiana Legislature passed a civics exam in June, which now awaits Gov. Bobby Jindal’s signature.

In Arizona, state Sen. Steve Yarbrough said the idea seemed logical.

“It just struck me as a good idea because I’m sure many of us have been surprised by how modest the grasp of civics may be among, honestly, our whole population,” Yarbrough said.

Results from the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that 18 percent of eighth-graders performed at or above the proficient level in U.S. history, 27 percent performed at or above the proficient level in geography and 23 percent performed at or above the proficient level in civics.

Frank Riggs, president and CEO of the Joe Foss Institute—the nonprofit organization that created the Civics Education Initiative—said those test results are “appalling evidence of civic illiteracy.” The goal of the initiative is to get all 50 states to enact laws requiring the test by Sept. 17, 2017, which will be the 230th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution.

“We’ve had a good first year, and now we need to capitalize on that momentum and the fact that we’ve kind of created a buzz,” Riggs said.

But not everyone has jumped on board. In Indiana, a civics test bill was proposed but did not gain enough votes in the Senate. Indiana state Sen. Earline Rogers said the state has been working to decrease the amount of testing and Indiana students already are tested on civics throughout the school year.

Indiana state Rep. Robert Behning said rote learning will not help students.

“You really have to do more to engage the student,” he said. “A test is not going to fix the problem.”

There are 100 questions on the naturalization test administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration officers. The test includes questions about American government, American history and geography, such as: How many amendments does the Constitution have? What is freedom of religion? Who was president during World War I? What ocean is on the west coast of the United States?

Individuals applying for citizenship are asked 10 questions from the test and must correctly answer six.

Yarbrough said it seemed reasonable to have a similar expectation for Arizona’s high school students. They will be given the entire test and must correctly answer 60 questions. Students who fail the test will be allowed to retake it until they receive a passing grade.

The Civics Education Initiative recommends 60 percent as a passing grade because it is the passing grade for citizenship applicants. But test requirements vary among states that have enacted civics exam laws. Students in North Dakota will be required to answer 70 percent of the questions correctly.

Ted McConnell, executive director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools—a coalition of groups that work to improve K-12 civic education—said effective civics education encompasses robust instruction, experiential learning, service learning and opportunities to discuss contemporary and controversial issues.

“We salute the Joe Foss Institute,” McConnell said. “They identified the right problem, but I think this is the wrong solution.”

McConnell is not opposed to testing students in civics. He said most students are being taught the material and a portfolio assessment would be a better way to evaluate students in civics. He said the naturalization test was not created, or intended, for students in U.S. public high schools.

Riggs said costs for schools to administer the test should be minimal because it is readily available. He said the Joe Foss Institute supports and provides programs to engage students in civics education, and he expects teachers to use results from the civics test to improve curricula.

Civics education has taken a backseat to standardized tests and instruction in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—or STEM—Riggs said.

“There is this whole refrain in public education nowadays that the purpose of public education is to prepare young people for college and career,” he said. “The purpose of public education should be to prepare young people for college and career and citizenship.”

Yarbrough agreed and said a really good engineer also should be a really good citizen.

“All of us are very interested in advancing STEM education,” Yarbrough said. “We think it’s terribly important. But you still obviously need to have a basic grasp of civics.”