Could You Pass the Citizenship Test?

American Flag 1Quickly now – name one of the authors of The Federalist Papers, and don’t you dare go to Google. Do you know the pseudonym used by the authors to hide their true identities? Do you know why the Federalist Papers were written? If you have difficulty with any of the above be thankful that you’re not about to take the citizenship test to become a bona-fide American, as all three questions are on the test.

An associate of mine recently helped a Panamanian immigrant friend study for the test and was impressed with the quality of the questions.  Applicants are given a study book containing 100 questions, of which any 10 can be asked at the final quiz. Anything less than 6 correct and you fail.  After looking at all 100 questions it occurred to him that a majority of American high school seniors would have a hard time passing it.

As the old saying goes, that is sad but true.

Recent ACT test results, while not testing history specifically, showed that only 60% of high schoolers met collegiate success benchmarks in English, 46% in reading, 40% in math and 38% in science. Only 36% of our seniors met “college ready” benchmarks in all four categories tested.  Most educators I’ve talked with expect that the scores in American History would be in the high 30% to mid-40% range. Put another way –less than half of our high school seniors would score 50% on an American history test.

Other questions on the citizenship test include being able to name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and how many justices are on the court, name the Vice President, name one U.S. territory, name two rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, the purpose and the author of that document, define the rule of law, name the President during World War I, who we fought in World War II, describe one of the four Constitutional Amendments that deal with voting, name one power that belongs only to the states, one thing Ben Franklin is famous for and the number of members in each house of Congress.

While these are certainly not “gimme” questions, neither are they so esoteric that they should be beyond the knowledge of most American high school students. They are basic, foundational history questions, the answers to which should be known not just to applicants for citizenship but by every citizen.

Graduation from high school should entail a knowledge of American history at least as rigorous as that required to become a citizen. Newly elected South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem supports making passing the citizenship test a requirement for high school graduation.  I hope she is successful not only in South Dakota but in spreading this idea across the country. I look forward to supporting such measures in the individual states.

I can imagine that some folks will say that in today’s interconnected, digital world a highly developed knowledge of the STEM topics (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is more important to success than American history. They are correct only in the most myopic sense. Knowledge of our past, and yes what makes America exceptional, is the glue that binds all of us together.  To mix metaphors, it is the corn starch that holds together the myriad ingredients in the American melting pot.

The Bible asks what it profits someone to gain the whole world if that person loses their soul. What would it profit our students to become successful in the world but lose their American identity, their freedoms, their heritage of American exceptionalism? Think that’s being melodramatic? The ACT scores, coupled with the widespread belief among many educators that a majority of high school seniors would fail our citizenship test, indicate that this is precisely what is at stake.

Two time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough is the author of some of the best books on American history ever written.  Pick one up at random and start reading – you will be hooked. (My own favorites are his eponymous biography of John Adams and his history of building the Panama Canal, “The Path Between The Seas”). McCullough described the importance of teaching American history in schools this way; “You cannot love what you do not know”. We should not be surprised if many American students don’t love their country. They don’t really know it.

There is no one silver bullet to overcome this sad situation, but being able to pass the citizenship test would be a giant step forward for our high school seniors. Such knowledge is a requirement of new citizens. It would be an enormous gift to our students, and in the long run to our country. I am confident enough in our country, and our students, to believe that once they know America, they will love it.