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Citizenship Tests as a Graduation Requirement

January 28, 2015

As readers of this blog know, I am solidly against the high stakes standardized test regimen that has been imposed on schools as a result of NCLB and RTTT. I am not, however, opposed to ALL standardized tests. I fully support standardized Criterion Referenced Tests (CRTs), tests that are designed to measure a specific skills and specific information sets that are necessary to successfully use those skills. An example of a CRT that is universally accepted is the test required to obtain a drivers license. To secure a drivers license one must demonstrate the capability of driving a car and the ability to understand the signs and “rules of the road”. The AP Tests and GED are examples of CRTs that are accepted as evidence that a student has mastered the skills required for specific college courses or required to graduate from high school.

An article by Rick Rojas and Mokoto Rich in today’s NYTimes describes a CRT that is being required by some states for graduation that is also hard to argue against: the citizenship examination administered to immigrants. Rojas and Mokoto write:

This month, Arizona became the first state to pass a law requiring its high school students to pass the citizenship exam, stipulating that they must answer at least 60 of 100 questions correctly to receive a diploma. (Immigrants are given 10 of the 100 questions and must correctly answer six to pass.) Other states may follow suit: North Dakota’s House of Representatives has passed a comparable bill, and its Senate approved it Tuesday; legislators in Indiana, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and seven other states have recently introduced similar initiatives.

The driving force behind this movement is Frank Riggs, a former congressman who is president of the Joe Foss Institute. Riggs thought that it was reasonable to require ALL high school graduates to “demonstrate a rudimentary knowledge of civics” in order to get a diploma and reasoned that there was no need to devise a new test for this because we already had one in place: the test given to aspiring US citizens.

The article notes that the proposal to require passage of the citizenship examination does have some opposition:

“I don’t think the test measures what is most important for students to learn,” said Diana Hess, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation, which gives grants in support of education causes. “If all we’re asking students to do is answer very simple questions, we’re not going to be working on the complex understanding that I think students need in order to participate well.”

The balance of the article describes various perspectives on the question, citing the lack of fundamental knowledge that exists among voters today and the poor voter turnout.

I wholeheartedly support this idea… but would take it a step further. To get a drivers license one must not only pass a written test, one must also pass a performance test: they must demonstrate the ability to drive a car. Similarly I would propose that schools require high school students to register to vote and vote in mock elections beginning in their sophomore year. In that way they would learn the procedures that are required in their state and get an understanding of the specific offices they will be voting for once they are of age. For those teachers who complain that this would take time away from “valuable instruction” my retort would be this: “What is more important to our democracy than ensuring high school graduates are informed voters?”

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