Citizenship Tests Are Good for Citizens, Too

Everyone should know this stuff.

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

Americans love democracy and freedom -- so long as there’s no quiz involved. The numbers are depressing: One in four Americans do not know that the U.S. declared its independence from England. One in three cannot name a single branch of government. Three in four don’t know why the Civil War was fought.

Late-night comedians and plenty of others have had fun shining a light on the dark corners of the American brain, and when faced with such obliviousness, it’s surely better to laugh than cry. Better yet would be to do something about it.

More than 90 percent of students take a civics class in high school, but on a national test given in 2010, only 27 percent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency in the subject. A core purpose of public education is to prepare young people not only for college and careers, but also for the responsibilities that come with citizenship, including voting. Schools require students to meet basic standards in math and English. The same should be true of civics.

Recently, a movement has sprung up around a simple but compelling idea: requiring high school students to pass the same citizenship test given to immigrants. In January, Arizona and North Dakota became the first states to adopt such a requirement, and 19 other states are considering it. Americans may have a constitutional right not to pay attention, but ignorance has never been an excuse for failing a test in high school -- on civics, chemistry or anything else.

To be clear: A citizenship test is not a panacea for civic ignorance or the abysmally low voting rates that define U.S. elections. But if immigrants are expected to pass it before receiving their citizenship papers, it’s reasonable to expect high school students to pass it before receiving their diploma. And it’s hardly rocket science.

The federal government's citizenship test contains the most basic kinds of questions about U.S. history and government, such as: “What did the Declaration of Independence do?” and “Who vetoes bills?” and “What is the capital of your state?” Each year, more than half a million immigrants take the test, and more than 90 percent pass. Yet a survey in 2012 found that only 65 percent of native-born citizens would pass the test, which requires answering only six out of 10 questions correctly.

Critics of the test worry that states could use it as a replacement for civics classes, but there is no reason why the two can’t coexist. In fact, states should adopt the test as part of a stronger civics curriculum with higher standards. Unfortunately, in 2013 the U.S. Department of Education suspended national exams in civics and history for 12th-graders as a result of budget cuts, making it harder to assess whether students are making progress -- and easier for schools to walk away from these subjects.

Civic pride runs deep in American culture. It's not too much to demand that this pride be based on civic knowledge.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.