a USA Today debate about the citizenship exam

USA Today’s editorial board has an editorial today supporting the recent laws in Arizona and North Dakota that require students to pass the federal test designed for naturalizing citizens. The board acknowledges, “Some questions are easy or trivial. But many about voting, the First Amendment, states’ rights and the Supreme Court offer jumping-off points for enticing discussions about current events. In the hands of a good teacher, they can make students realize how much the American system of government affects their lives. The test can provide a floor on civics learning. It doesn’t have to set the ceiling.”

To their credit, the board gave me equal space for an “opposing view.” I argue, “Requiring students to pass the citizenship exam will reduce both the amount and the quality of civic education in our schools.” I conclude:

The citizenship exam requires, for instance, that you know that “27” is the correct answer when you’re asked how many constitutional amendments have been passed. You don’t need to understand reasons for or against those amendments, or have any sense of why they were important.

A month after students pass this test, they will forget the number 27. But they might retain the message that being a good citizen is a matter of memorizing some random information. That seems like an excellent way to turn people off.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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