Joe Kahne on the citizenship test movement

Several states are requiring high school students to pass the US naturalization test in order to graduate. I credit the very well-intentioned sponsors of these bills with raising attention to civics and provoking a healthy discussion. I am against the actual legislation, for reasons I laid out in a Fox News piece: “Federal Citizenship Test: What Should a Good Citizen Really Know About America?” Mills College professor Joseph E. Kahne has an excellent article along similar lines in Ed Week today: “Why Are We Teaching Democracy Like a Game Show?” It’s behind a firewall, so I’ll just cite some highlights:

Suppose a legislature passed a law that made it a graduation requirement to know the name of the town in which Shakespeare was born. By passing that law, the members reasoned, teachers would teach this fact, students would learn it, and presto—the nation would benefit from improved literacy!

This hypothetical may sound odd, but legislators in more than a dozen states want to prepare young people for democracy by taking this approach. They have drafted bills to make passage of the naturalization test, the test given to those who want to become U.S. citizens, a graduation requirement. This law has already passed in Arizona and North Dakota.

To some, this graduation requirement may sound fair. If those who want to be American citizens must pass this test, why not require it for high school seniors?

Unfortunately, the test consists of a fixed set of 100 factual questions. For example, one test question asks for the name of the territory the United States purchased in 1803, and another asks respondents to “name one of the two longest rivers in the United States.” Memorizing the answers to such questions might prepare students for the game show “Jeopardy!,” but doing so won’t promote good citizenship any more than memorizing who wrote Moby Dick would promote good literacy skills.

Schools can prepare students to become leaders and problem-solvers for the 21st century. But to do so, policymakers need to reinforce the focus on substantive reform, not distract teachers and students with empty symbolic efforts. That way, teachers can concentrate on helping students understand the content of the Constitution, rather than on requiring that they memorize the answer to the test question, “When was the Constitution written?”

Democracy thrives when citizens think critically and deeply about civic and political issues, when they consider the needs and priorities of others, and when they engage in informed action—not when they memorize a few facts. Let’s make high-quality civic learning a priority. Let’s not take the easy way out and pass laws in more than a dozen states that turn civic education into a game of Trivial Pursuit.

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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