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To test or not to test?

By Sheila Kennedy on January 21, 2015 in Civic Blog
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100720-N-1938G-002I used to introduce my undergraduate Law and Public Policy class by administering a test–20 questions drawn from the citizenship test immigrants have to pass in order to become U.S. citizens.

I stopped because it was too depressing. Foreign students regularly passed the test; native-born students just as routinely failed it. So I’ve been intrigued by the recent effort to require American kids to pass the test in order to graduate from high school. Arizona was the first state to pass such a measure, and Sen. Dennis Kruse has advocated doing so in Indiana. 

Similar measures are under consideration in 15 states, according to Sam Stone, political director for the Civics Education Initiative, an Arizona-based non-profit group that is lobbying for the civics test across the country.

Stone told the newspaper that about 92 percent of immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship pass the test on their first try, but as few as 5 percent of high school students passed the test.

“Those are really poor numbers,” he said. “No matter how much knowledge you have, if you don’t know how to use that knowledge within our system of government, it’s not much good,” he said. “Our government was designed to be run by informed, engaged citizens. We have an incredibly dangerous form of government for people who don’t know how it works.”

No kidding!

So what are the pros and cons of requiring the citizenship test? The biggest pro is pretty obvious: it shines an important light on this country’s abysmal neglect of civic education. At the very least, students will have to learn the material covered by the test. If the past few years of high-stakes testing have shown us anything, it is that we don’t teach anything that isn’t tested.

And that leads to the “con.” A quibble, really.

In this era of “reform,” schools teach to the test, and a number of the questions on this particular test have a very tenuous connection to how our government actually works. (Knowing the date the Declaration of Independence was signed is nice, but distinguishing between the Declaration and the Constitution and understanding the role of each is more central to informed citizenship.) I would hope that passage of the measure–which I support!–would include a provision for updating the test as research gives us more information about what sorts of knowledge correlate most closely to civic participation and literacy.

But by all means, let’s send the message to young Americans that we expect them to actually know something about the country they will ultimately control.

A4_1_10_SheilaKennedySheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is Director of the Center for Civic Literacy and Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. She is the Executive Editor for the Journal of Civic Literacy. This post was originally published at sheilakennedy.net on January 20, 2015 and is republished here with the author’s permission.

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