Don’t Know Much About History

I’ve long been a fan of making the U.S. citizenship test a graduation requirement for every American student. Yes, I know our kids already take too many tests. Yes, I know the test requires little more than regurgitation of basic facts about civics and history. But let’s be real: If you graduate from an American school unable to name one right or freedom in the First Amendment, the name of one of your senators, or the country from which we won our independence, something has gone very, very wrong.

My latest column for U.S. News looks at the move to make the test a graduation requirement. Already this year, four states have done so. I’m hoping many more follow suit. From the piece:

People who take civic education seriously (yes, they exist) fret that states that adopt the citizenship test may be tacitly encouraging their schools to abandon more rigorous, semester-long classes in civics. I’m skeptical. At present, more than 90 percent of U.S. high school grads get a semester in civics and at least a year of U.S. history. But something is clearly not sticking. An Xavier University study showed that while 97.5 percent of those applying for citizenship pass the test, only two out of three Americans can do the same. Raise the bar to seven of ten—still pretty low—and half of us fail. It’s hard not to wonder what exactly kids are learning in those ostensibly rich and rigorous civics classes.

The bottom line: I see no conflict between classes that seek to develop deep civic engagement (I teach such a class at Democracy Prep in Harlem) and establishing a rock-bottom, basic level of civic knowledge as a public school exit ticket (Democracy Prep has made passing the citizenship test a graduation requirement). There’s no reason not to have both.

No one should confuse being able to name the authors of the Federalist Papers with solving the civic education crisis in America. But we shouldn’t pretend that demonstrating a minimal knowledge of civics and history is too much to ask.

– Robert Pondiscio

This first appeared on Flypaper.

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