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Students’ Lack of Basic Knowledge of US History and Civics Remains a National Embarrassment


September 18, 2023

A new study from a pair of Penn State researchers finds that passing the US Citizenship Test as a high school graduation requirement does nothing to improve youth voter turnout. Within the last decade more than a third of US states have adopted and implemented a version of the “Civics Education Initiative” (CEI), but according to study co-author Jill Jung, a graduate student in education policy studies, “when it comes to improving voting among youth, mandating civics tests that focus on assessing political knowledge might be a wasted effort.” The study by Jung and Maithreyi Gopalan appears in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

The US Citizenship Test has been in place since 1986. It consists of a list of 100 questions about American history, our system of government, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens. Immigration officials administer the test orally, asking would-be citizens seeking naturalization 10 of the 100 questions; they must answer at least six correctly to pass. The questions aren’t particularly difficult. They consist of things like naming any one of the three branches of government, how many US senators there are, and naming a right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. Rock-bottom, basic stuff.

I was an early proponent of making the citizenship test a graduation requirement. About a decade ago, I helped launch a short-lived civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools, a Harlem-based charter school network dedicated to civic education and engagement. Passing the citizenship test was a graduation requirement for DPPS students—and not just six out of 10, but all 100 questions with a passing score of 83 correct. We launched a pledge effort aimed at educators, politicians, and policy-makers called “Challenge 2026” that would make passing the citizenship test a national high school graduation requirement by the nation’s 250th birthday. The Arizona-based Joe Foss Institute had far more success gaining traction for the issue and frankly a better strategy: getting state legislatures to adopt it as a high school graduation requirement, which 18 states have done so far.

I take no issue with the finding that those states have seen no increase in youth voting, but the impetus was never to improve voter participation. Frankly, it was to correct a profound national embarrassment: more than 96 percent of immigrants seeking naturalization pass the test—a rate that Americans at-large are nowhere near matching. Only 13 percent, in one survey, knew when the US Constitution was ratified, for example. Most couldn’t say which countries the US fought in World War II; only one in four could even say why American colonists fought a war against Great Britain. Unsurprisingly, older Americans have the easiest time of it, with 74 percent answering at least six in 10 questions correctly. Among those under the age of 45, only one in five pass, which says a lot about the debased standards of common knowledge expected of students in US schools, whose founding purpose was to prepare ordinary people for self-government.

It is hard to overstate what a low bar the citizenship test represents. At one conference I attended, a teacher at a Core Knowledge charter school, a naturalized immigrant herself, pointed out that 75 of the 100 questions on the US citizenship test were covered in the Core Knowledge Sequence by the end fourth grade. Moreover, there is the simple and obvious double standard: why hold immigrants accountable for knowing a few basic facts about our history and system of government, but not students in our own schools? Still, there was an awful lot of tut-tutting from Serious People in civic education about making the citizenship test a graduation requirement. It’s trivial pursuit! It’s mindless memorization! It takes time and energy away from Serious Pursuits in civics, such as authentic engagement in government, student activism, and grappling with “real issues.”

Never mind that lacking basic knowledge makes it hard to understand how or why to fight for change, our obligations and rights as citizens, what constitutes appropriate democratic conduct, or why a certain amount of frustration is a healthy feature of life in our system. The unexpected resistance to this modest minimum eventually wore me down until I had to agree that the critics were right and I was wrong. I no longer think it’s a good idea for the US Citizenship Test to be a high school graduation requirement.

It should be an elementary school graduation requirement.