Should the legislature have repealed the civics test requirement?

In 2016, the Minnesota legislature passed a law requiring the state’s public school students to pass a civics test. It wasn’t a graduation requirement; districts decided what grade level to give it to students; it could be administered as part of a school’s social studies curriculum; it could be taken orally, on paper, or online; it didn’t have to be timed; it didn’t have to be taken in a single setting; and students could take it as many times as needed to pass (getting 30 out of 50 questions correct), to name a few.

The test consisted of 50 questions out of the 100 questions found on the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Naturalization Test — also known as the U.S. citizenship test — that has been in place since 1986 and asks applicants seeking naturalization 10 questions, of which they must answer at least six correctly to pass. The questions cover fairly rudimentary knowledge about American government and history, such as naming any of the three branches of government, naming a right guaranteed by the First Amendment, naming how many U.S. senators there are, etc.

The Minnesota legislature repealed the test requirement this past session. Perhaps they did so given that students will now be required to complete a course in citizenship and government in order to graduate.

But new social studies standards currently working their way through rulemaking, which include citizenship and government standards, and their corresponding benchmarks, amount to a “repudiation of everything that the serious study of history and civics has ever meant in this country, or any country,” according to an analysis by national social studies expert Wilfred McClay. “[The standards and benchmarks’] highlighting of ‘resistance’ as a civic virtue, from kindergarten on, is an implicit calling-into-question of the very legitimacy of the regime under which we live.”

Student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics test are in decline and back to scores from 1998, and Americans struggle to answer the basic history and civics questions that are asked of immigrants seeking naturalization. As Robert Pondiscio with the American Enterprise Institute points out:

…[M]ore than 96 percent of immigrants seeking naturalization pass the [U.S. citizenship] test — a rate that Americans at-large are nowhere near matching. Only 13 percent, in one survey, knew when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, for example. Most couldn’t say which countries the U.S. fought in World War II; only one in four could even say why American colonists fought a war against Great Britain. 

Among those under the age of 45, only one in five pass [the U.S. citizenship test], which says a lot about the debased standards of common knowledge expected of students in U.S. schools, whose founding purpose was to prepare ordinary people for self-government.

[W]hy hold immigrants accountable for knowing a few basic facts about our history and system of government, but not students in our own schools?

Not only is there a dire need to improve students’ civic knowledge, but to also ensure they are prepared to fully participate in our democracy. Civics education is more than just helping students understand how to vote, or teaching them what the three branches of government are, or how our complex federal system works, notes McClay.

It is about membership in a society of civic equals: citizens, not subjects, whose respect for one another’s equal standing under the law is a guiding moral premise of the democratic way of life.

It is about promoting a vivid and enduring sense of what we have in common, of our belonging to one of the greatest enterprises in human history: the astonishing, perilous, and immensely consequential story of our own country.

Both things involve fostering that sense of felt connection to our past, and of gratitude for the good things that we have inherited, along with a feeling of responsibility for the tasks of preserving them and improving upon them.

Students can and should learn about America’s past failure to live up to its ideals of freedom and opportunity for all while also cherishing the achievement made of overcoming that legacy, writes Jonathan Butcher with The Heritage Foundation.

Minnesota social studies teachers must ensure students are taught basic factual knowledge and encouraged to cultivate a civic identity, both of which are largely lost in the proposed social studies standards.

Below are several great resources for teachers and school boards (who select curricula) to consider that will elevate civics education in the classroom.

Civics Alliance: American Birthright Model K-12 Social Studies Standards

Hillsdale College: American History and Civics Lessons for K-12 Classrooms

1776 Unites: K-8 and High School Curriculum

American Heritage Education Foundation: Civics Education Lesson Plans, Teaching Guides

The Tuttle Twins: Books that use storytelling to introduce civic principles to children

FreedomCivics: Foundations of American Government

The Heritage Foundation: Civics Lessons and Resources

Wilfred McClay: Land of Hope, high school textbook