Social Studies

Goldwater Institute: High School Graduates Should Have to Pass Civics Test

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 07, 2009 2 min read
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To get a high school diploma, students should have to pass the same test that is required for people to become U.S. citizens, the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute is saying. The nonprofit organization made the recommendation after finding in a study that only 3.5 percent of public school students in Arizona could pass the citizenship test.

High school students were given 10 of the 100 test questions from a bank of test items for the U.S. citizenship exam, as is the practice for candidates for citizenship. To pass, test takers needed to get six questions correct. Typically, about 92.4 percent of applicants for U.S. citizenship pass by getting six out of 10 questions right on the first try, the institute says.

While 3.5 percent of public school students passed the test, which included questions such as “Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?” and “Who was the first president of the United States?”, twice that percentage of charter school students in Arizona passed the test. Private school students passed the test at about four times the rate that public school students did.

The folks at the Goldwater Institute are not the only people concerned about what they perceive as a lack of civics education in schools. The actor Richard Dreyfuss is creating a civics curriculum and former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat from Florida, has written a book, America, the Owner’s Manual: Making Government Work for You, urging high school and college students to get more involved in politics.

USA Today published an opinion piece this month that picked up on the Goldwater Institute’s study, saying that the nation needs to find better ways to educate young people about history and civics. Blogger Joanne Jacobs also highlighted the lack of students’ knowledge about civics by featuring the findings of the Goldwater survey.

I’m wondering if candidates for U.S. citizenship have a chance to study the test questions for the citizenship test beforehand. That might explain the difference in pass rates between them and high school students, if the students didn’t study the questions beforehand.

When I took the written exam for my driver’s license in the District of Columbia, I could read all of the questions from the test bank ahead of time in a test-preparation guide. I memorized them and aced the 15 test questions that were giving to me in an exam.

Readers, do you think that students should have to pass a civics exam to get a high school diploma?

Photo by Richard Drew/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.