HOW COOL, I thought when I heard that three of our former governors were pushing a civics initiative to get all high school students to take a very long version of the immigration citizenship test. Not only are they working in support of a vitally important cause, but it’s a test. About government. I’ll take it and write about it, and that’ll be a fun column.
So I took the test, and frankly didn’t come away with a lot to say about the experience: I was a little uncertain about a couple of geography questions, but I got them right anyway. I was grateful that the one asking the number of amendments to the Constitution was multiple choice instead of fill in the blank, because I was off by one in the number I guessed; luckily, only one of the four options was close to my guess.
There also were a few questions where I didn’t think any of the answers were precisely correct, but rather than getting indignant and refusing to answer, I figured out which one the test-writer had intended to be right. For instance, the purpose of the Constitution, the test told us, is to secure rights. Well, I suppose that’s part of one part of what it does.
Anyway, that pretty much does it for my report, other than to say that I aced it. Which you’d expect of someone who does what I do — just like you’d expect a physician to ace a 10th-grade anatomy test, or a high school English teacher to ace a fifth-grade grammar test.
And the more I examined the proposal, the less enthusiastic I became about the idea of making our schools figure out how to administer a 100-question multiple choice test — only 40 questions are available in test form online — and let students take it as often as they want, and then give them extra credit toward graduation if they eventually managed to get 60 of the questions right. I mean, just what does “extra credit toward graduation” mean? That they get to skip a semester of … civics class?
Indeed, one of the reasons I’m not sure that the test-for-credit idea is so fabulous is that civics is something that South Carolina requires students to study in high school. In fact, South Carolina actually provides a decent amount of citizenship study in high school. At least compared to the rest of the nation. According to a 2012 report from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, South Carolina is one of nine states that require students to pass a social studies test in order to graduate from high school.
Someone working on the S.C. initiative told me that the segment on the Constitution that high school students have to take doesn’t include “the full range of questions from the test.” But what is included, according to that 2012 report, is a fairly good overview: “the provisions and principles of the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist papers, and American institutions and ideals.” And this must be taught “for a period of at least one year, or its equivalent, either within the required U.S. History course and/or within another course.”
That’s not to say that students end up knowing enough about how our government works. They almost certainly don’t. Just as most of us don’t.
The 60 percent that supporters want to set as a pass rate for high school students coincides with the score immigrants have to achieve to become citizens, and indeed one of the key selling points for getting high school students to take the test is the difference between the success rate for immigrants — 92 percent pass the first time out — and the embarrassing 4 percent pass rate of students from Oklahoma and Arizona who were given the same test. That, and the fact that the Pew Research Center has found that only a third of Americans can name the three branches of the U.S. government, much less say what each does.
It’s easy, and quite appropriate, to get outraged over the students’ abysmal performance, which presumably is representative of students across the country, even in South Carolina and the other eight states that test on civics. Easier, and even more appropriate, to get outraged over is the fact that adults are so lacking in basic knowledge about such a fundamental aspect of our government — and yet these same adults elect our presidents and members of Congress and governors and legislators. And it shows.
What’s not appropriate is to compare that poll answer and those students’ test results to immigrants’ scores on the citizenship test. The citizenship test is composed of 10 questions, selected from among the 100 that S.C. students would be tested on. The questions and answers are all online, at uscis.gov/citizenship. What that means is that those people who passed the test on their first try likely studied the questions and answers until they felt confident that they knew the material well enough to pass.
I have every confidence that high school students — or adults — who were promised an attractive payoff for memorizing the answers well enough to pass a test could do so just as well.
That’s not to say it’s a bad idea to encourage high school students to take the test. I think it might do some good — ideally as part of their civics class, where they could talk about the experience, and about what they learned preparing for it that they should have already learned in school but somehow didn’t. And without reducing the amount of education they have to receive to graduate.
It would be an equally great idea for all of us to take the test and, if we don’t do so well, to study the questions and answers until we’re able to take it and do well.
Memorizing the answers to 100 questions isn’t going to make any of us better citizens. However, a lot of the things that are on the test are essential building blocks to being good citizens.
You simply can’t judge the job the president and the Congress are doing if you don’t understand that the president’s office and the Congress are co-equal branches of government, along with the courts. You can’t judge the opinions of the Supreme Court if you don’t understand that the job of the courts is to interpret the laws and rule on their constitutionality, whether the justices like the results or not.
The Civics Education Initiative can be quite valuable. But ultimately, its value has nothing to do with getting kids to take another test. It has to do with getting all of us to think about and talk about the importance of understanding how our government works and why, of what our Constitution says and why. It has to do with getting us thinking about and talking about what it means to work together for the good of the nation or the state or the community and to choose people to represent us, to vote and pay attention to and hold our elected officials accountable, in a reasonable way.
One of our problems is that too many people aren’t that well grounded in this, though they act as though they were. Too many political junkies don’t even care much about this. For too many people, government is politics, and politics is a game where you pick sides and end up with winners and losers. Here’s where they’re wrong: When you treat it that way, there are no winners. We all lose.