Will Citizenship Test Make Better Citizens?

Reading audio

20 February, 2015

A new law in Arizona requires high school students to pass the United States' naturalization test. Immigrants to the United States must pass this test to become a citizen. The test contains 100 questions on U.S. history and government.

The Joe Foss Institute, a non-profit organization in Arizona, worked with legislators to create the law. Their goal is to pass a law in each of the fifty states to require high school students to pass the naturalization test.

Supporters of civics testing are working in other states to pass similar laws. North Dakota passed a law in January requiring students to take a civics test about a week after Arizona passed its law.

The new state laws will increase the number of American students who understand how their government works.

Few students currently have this knowledge. A 2010 national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), showed only about 25 percent of students in their final year of high school had a good understanding of American democracy. Thirty-six percent did not have even a basic understanding.

"And that's obviously a shame, and it's not only a shame, it's dangerous for a democracy to have people in a level of ignorance or apathy or both."

John Hale is the Associate Director of the nonprofit Center for Civic Education in California. The organization has promoted the ideas and behaviors of democracy for 50 years.

Mr. Hale thinks it is dangerous when citizens do not know or care about how their government works. He says students do not only need to learn facts about government. They should also learn how to participate in their local communities. In school they can learn how to work together to solve problems. Requiring high school students to take the naturalization test might be a way to improve students' civic behavior, he says.

"You know the adage: if it isn't tested, it isn't taught."

Does civic education help?

But some wonder if a test young people take in high school will make adults more active in their communities.

Sam Stone writes a blog for the Civics Education Initiative. The initiative is part of the Joe Foss Institute, which helped create the Arizona law. Mr. Stone says research shows that civic education does result in more involved adults. He noted a 2012 survey that found the more young people studied civics and current events in high school, the more likely they were to vote and understand politics.

Mr. Stone says requiring a civics exam should make schools do more than just prepare for the test.

"We hope that, after they take this first step, that schools and states and school districts, teachers, really look for how they can get their kids involved actively in their communities, whether that's volunteering on campaigns, or working with nonprofit and volunteer organizations in their communities."

Mr. Stone says Americans need the next generation to learn how to be active, engaged citizens.

Virginia decides against civic test

In another state, Virginia, the legislature debated a bill in January to require students to pass the naturalization test. But the bill failed.

Meg Gruber is the President of the Virginia Education Association. She says students already take classes in civics and U.S. history. They must pass tests in those subjects to graduate.

And, she says, Virginia schools are already operating on lower budgets. Adding another test without additional money to pay for it puts a greater burden on the schools.

Sam Stone of the Civics Education Initiative agrees that schools should not have to pay more for the test.

"We're doing everything we can to make sure that this costs as little as possible, or as close to nothing as possible."

Mr. Stone says his organization is paying for an online testing website. Schools can use the website to give the naturalization test for free.

Florida targets younger students, too

In Florida both middle and high school students are required to take a civics class. In 2010, the Florida state legislature passed the "Justice Sandra Day O'Connor Civics Education Act." Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman to be appointed as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Justice O'Connor founded an organization to provide online games that teach civics. The site, icivics.org, won a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions in February. A member of the board of iCivics, Professor James Gee, is a leading researcher in the field of educational gaming.

In iCivics games, students use their knowledge to solve problems. They might pretend to be the president trying to pass a bill. They may be a?Supreme Court justice and decide on a case. Teachers and researchers say this active learning through games keeps students engaged in the classroom.

Louise Dube is the Executive Director of iCivics. Ms. Dube says, "Kids tell us, ‘It's hard to be president'?when playing?Executive Command, and it is."

Researchers found that students who participated in the iCivics games performed better on civics essay tests and understood how to participate in a democracy.

I'm Jill Robbins.

Jill Robbins reported and wrote this story for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.


Words in This Story

naturalization n. (U.S.) the way that a person not born in the United States voluntarily becomes a U.S. citizen

civic adj. relating to citizenship or being a citizen

engage with or engage in - phrasal verb. to give someone or something serious attention

engage - v. to get and keep someone's attention or interest

democracy n. the system of government in which citizens vote to choose leaders or to make other important decisions

apathy - n. the feeling of not having much emotion or interest

ignorance - n. a lack of knowledge, understanding, or education

Now it's your turn to use the words in this story. How do students learn about the government of your country? Do you think high school students should take a test to prove this knowledge? Write to us in the comments section with your opinion.