U.S. Citizenship Test Gains Traction as Diploma Criterion

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 24, 2015 8 min read
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, seated, hands over a pen to state Rep. Steve Montenegro, a fellow Republican, after signing a bill requiring students to pass a civics test to graduate from high school.
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Amid long-standing national angst over the amount of knowledge that American public school students have of civics, one organization’s push to make the test administered to prospective U.S. citizens a high school graduation requirement is finding early momentum in many states.

It’s also attracting critics concerned that the citizenship test—recently adopted as a diploma requirement in two states and the basis of legislation that’s been considered in at least 17 others—won’t do anything significant to improve students’ understanding of and engagement with the subject.

Arizona and North Dakota this past January became the first states to pass legislation requiring students to correctly answer a portion of the exam, administered by the federal Citizenship and Immigration Services to people seeking U.S. citizenship, in order to graduate from high school.

The bill is the brainchild of the Joe Foss Institute, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based organization that traditionally has focused on sending military veterans into schools to discuss patriotism and American government. But under CEO and President Frank Riggs, who last year lost in the Republican primary for Arizona governor, the organization’s Civics Education Initiative is having notable success, some advocates say, pressing an issue that has traditionally stagnated in statehouses.

“It’ll first give us clear data with a high-stakes, real accountability measure,” said Seth Andrew, the founder of the New York City-based Democracy Prep Public Schools network of charter schools who has stressed civics education in his schools and supports the institute’s efforts. (Democracy Prep requires students to pass the citizenship test to graduate.) “This is a very low bar. And up until now, we’ve had no bar.”

But without a concerted push on civics curriculum and engagement in schools and beyond, others believe such bills will just lead to self-satisfied lawmakers, not more robust civics learning and engagement.

“I fear that rather than this being the start of a restoration of civics, this could lead to policymakers saying, ‘OK, we passed this bill, ... we’re done here,’ ” said Ted McConnell, the executive director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools in Silver Spring, Md.

Where Things Stand

Prospective citizens must answer six out of 10 questions from an item bank of 100 questions on the Citizenship and Immigration Services exam. The questions cover the U.S. Constitution, branches of government, American history, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens. Questions include: “What are two rights of everyone living in the United States?” and “Name one war fought by the United States in the 1800s.”

As of March 10, 17 states have considered bills this year that are in some way based on the Civics Education Initiative requiring passage of the citizenship exam in order to earn a diploma, according to a database kept by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. In Arizona, starting with the class of 2017, students must correctly answer 60 percent of the test’s 100 questions; in North Dakota, the threshold is 60 percent for that same year’s class and 70 percent for subsequent high school seniors.


Two states have passed—and at least 17 this year are considering—proposals to institute new graduation requirements for students when it comes to demonstrating civics knowledge. Both new laws and many of the proposals are based on the citizenship test administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Arizona: In January, Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation that made Arizona the first state to require students to correctly answer a certain percentage of questions from the federal citizenship exam in order to graduate. In Arizona, students will be required to answer 60 out of 100 questions in order to pass the test and graduate.

Idaho: A state Senate bill would require districts to begin administering a civics test using the federal citizenship exam in the 2016-17 school year. The bill doesn’t prescribe how many questions a student must answer correctly, and allows districts to determine the manner in which the test is administered. It also allows students to take an “alternate path” to demonstrate sufficient understanding of civics.

North Dakota: A House bill signed into law by Gov. Jack Dalrymple, a Republican, says that a student can begin taking the federal citizenship test in 7th grade and retake it as many times as necessary in order to demonstrate proficiency. High school seniors in the 2016-17 school year, the first year the act applies, must answer 60 percent of the questions correctly in order to pass; students in subsequent years must answer 70 percent of the questions correctly.

South Carolina: A House bill would require students to take the federal citizenship test, but they wouldn’t be required to achieve a certain score in order to graduate. A student who answers at least 60 percent of the questions correctly would be awarded a certificate of achievement. The requirement would apply to freshmen in high school beginning in the 2016-17 school year.

SOURCE: Education Week; Education Commission of the States

Concerns about the levels of civic knowledge among both students and adults have been widespread for some time.

In the last full administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in civics in 2010 to 4th, 8th, and 12th graders, the youngest students showed some progress, but scores were flat in the 8th grade and declined among seniors. The share of students scoring at least “proficient” in those grades in 2010 was 27 percent, 22 percent, and 24 percent, respectively. (In 2013, because of federal budget cuts known as the sequester, the National Assessment Governing Board reduced the planned administration of the civics test from grades 4, 8, and 12 to just grade 8. Results from that exam are due out this spring.)

Four states—Arizona, North Dakota, Ohio, and Virginia—now require students to pass some type of civics exam to graduate from high school, according to the Education Commission of the States. Maryland also requires students to pass a government exam that contains some civics questions. Other states, such as Florida, require that students take, but not necessarily pass, a civics test.

One attractive feature of the citizenship test for lawmakers is straightforward: States don’t have to pay anything for it.

“It’s easy to see this as a cheap reform when education budgets largely are tight,” said Paul Baumann, the director of the National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement at the ECS. “There’s no test to develop; the test is already out there. There are 100 questions.”

Not all states are proposing to use the citizenship test the same way. In a Utah bill that also would require students to pass questions from the citizenship test, for example, students would be given only 50 randomly selected questions from the test and have to answer 35 of them correctly. Bills that use the civics test as a condition for graduation have been defeated this year in four states, including Indiana and Iowa. In Indiana, lawmakers who voted down the bill expressed concern about creating more testing time.

Renewed Interest

Mr. Baumann added that the most-recent NAEP scores, along with survey data about civic knowledge released by the Annenberg Public Policy Center last year, is contributing to renewed interest in requiring civics to carry more weight. Among other findings, the Annenberg survey found that roughly 1 in 5 Americans believe a 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is “sent back to Congress for reconsideration.”

Last year, in order to expand the organization’s mission, the Joe Foss Institute established a new affiliate, the Civics Education Initiative, and dedicated it to advocating citizenship-test legislation in states.

Although the group doesn’t want to single out public schools for the state of civics education, Mr. Riggs, the CEO, said he wants the group’s proposal to serve as a floor, not a ceiling, and that the institute is looking to promote additional civics education resources and programs in the future.

“In some respects, it’s almost an afterthought,” Mr. Riggs said of civics education. “It’s been pushed aside to almost a secondary aspect of the curriculum, with the focus on core academics, with the rise of stem (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.”

Noting that the Democracy Prep charter network requires teachers to pass the citizenship test as part of their professional development, Mr. Andrew, its founder, said that such requirements accomplish the crucial goal of changing people’s attitudes toward civics education, which, right now, he called “deplorable.”

A 2013 survey of states’ social studies and civics requirements by the ECS shows that many states, such as Connecticut, Louisiana, and Michigan, require students to earn just a half-credit in civics. In all, 20 states mention some sort of requirement for civics courses. And as recently as 2012, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., reported that only eight states had any form of standardized test in civics.

But because the federal citizenship test is publicly available in advance, and students can simply memorize the answers in advance without understanding any content, it’s a bad test for schools to use, especially for holding students accountable, said Peter Levine, the executive director of the Tufts University center. He also said that the civics NAEP exam is relatively difficult for students, and that while they initially retain a lot of basic civics information, they tend to forget it as adults and then do poorly on civic-knowledge surveys like the one administered by the Annenberg policy center. (Mr. Levine has also served on the standing committee overseeing the NAEP in civics.) While the citizenship test might serve as a “conversation opener” to deepen civics knowledge, Mr. Levine said the danger is a renewed focus in schools on trivia and “boring stuff.”

“My main concern is that we’re not teaching the interesting stuff to kids,” he said.

‘Scrupulously Bipartisan’

Mr. McConnell of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools said that Tennessee legislation about civics education passed in 2012—which requires a project-based assessment of students’ civic knowledge and skills—is a good model.

Tennessee lawmakers are also considering citizenship-test legislation this year.

“It would not help students develop civic skills. That’s an essential component of civic education,” Mr. McConnell said.

Despite its early successes in several states, the Joe Foss Institute doesn’t want its civics campaign to be perceived as a national “top down” effort, but a state-by-state initiative, Mr. Riggs said. And he, along with Mr. Andrew, said the issue shouldn’t be viewed ideologically, even though it has gained its earliest traction in states run by Republicans.

“We’re trying to be scrupulously bipartisan,” Mr. Riggs said.

Not everyone involved in the effort, however, agrees about the political aspects of the effort.

Utah Sen. Howard Stephenson, a Republican who co-sponsored the bill that also requires passing the citizenship test, argued that to the extent learning about civics and government is rooted in a “strong belief in the founding principles of this nation,” conservatives might have a more natural attraction to his concept. That bill has been sent to Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, for approval. Mr. Stephenson said he conceived of the bill through a panel discussion of state lawmakers and not through the Joe Foss Institute.

Mr. Stephenson said his legislation does not address civics education programs in schools or in communities because doing so in the same bill would have been very difficult. “This is a beginning,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as Civics Tests for Diplomas Gain Traction


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