By Suzanne Perez Tobias
Do you know how many voting members are in the U.S. House of Representatives?
Can you explain what the Constitution does?
Could you name a state that borders Canada?
If so, you’re doing better than about a third of native-born American adults, who couldn’t pass a basic civics test administered to immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship.
“I don’t know if things are worse than they used to be or better in terms of civics education,” said Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt. “But I know they are not where all of us would want them to be.”
Schmidt is proposing an initiative to beef up civics knowledge among Kansas students, asking the State Board of Education to integrate the naturalization test as an educational tool in the state’s middle schools.
Schmidt’s proposal, inspired in part by national efforts by the Joe Foss Institute, would establish a voluntary system where middle school students would take the naturalization exam – the one immigrants have to pass to become citizens – and be recognized in some way for successfully completing it.
Schmidt also proposed encouraging more interaction between students and civic leaders.
“I had read a lot of the news coverage … about this concept. And it struck me at a gut level as a reasonable and good idea,” Schmidt said.
“It seems a natural fit to say that as an obligation of citizenship, regardless of whether one is born here or naturalized, there are certain core bits of information that we ought to insist you know.”
The Joe Foss Institute, a nonprofit group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., is on a mission to make passing the U.S. citizenship exam a high-school graduation requirement in all 50 states by 2017.
Lucian Spataro, chairman of educational initiatives for the institute, says citizenship-exam requirements already have been passed in nine states: Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin. The group is working with lawmakers and others in 26 more states, including Kansas, to introduce legislation in 2016, Spataro said.
“The basic building blocks of our republic aren’t being taught in our schools anymore today in a manner that is emphasized,” he said. “And that’s because they’re not on a test that matters. … If it’s tested, it’s taught.”
Although the group favors stricter requirements, Schmidt’s proposal for a voluntary test for middle-schoolers is “an important first step,” Spataro said Tuesday. “We applaud … Schmidt for his leadership and foresight recognizing the quiet crisis in civics education.”
The state board heard Schmidt’s presentation but took no action at this week’s meeting in Topeka. Board members said they plan to discuss the recommendation further.
For people born outside the U.S., applying for citizenship is a sometimes lengthy process that includes applications, residency requirements, biometric screenings, background checks and an interview.
During the interview, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer asks up to 10 random questions from a pool of 100 questions designed to test applicants’ familiarity with the fundamentals of American history, government and geography. Applicants must answer at least six questions correctly to pass.
“It’s very basic. The majority of people pass the test on the first try,” said Marilu Cabrera, spokeswoman for the USCIS regional office in Chicago. “So hopefully the students would be able to.”
Average Americans, however, tend to have a harder time with the test than prospective citizens, who study sample questions online or with the help of citizenship classes beforehand, she said. Reporters in Chicago have conducted man-on-the-street interviews using naturalization flashcards, Cabrera said.
“That’s kind of fun. Not a whole lot of people can pass,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s funny or embarrassing.”
Embarrassing, Schmidt said.
The attorney general took a sample test “because I wanted to be sure I could pass it,” he said. And he passed.
He said he thought the questions were relevant and included information every American citizen should know. That’s why he pressed forward with his proposal to use the test as a teaching tool in Kansas schools. He proposed using it in middle schools, he said, because educators he spoke with said that would be the appropriate level.
A natural starting place, he suggested, would be to integrate civics education with the state-established Celebrate Freedom Week in September, Bill of Rights Day in December or Law Day in May.
“The naturalization test can be the thread that ties together these various activities into a more cohesive and effective whole,” he said.
Schmidt said he would support legislation requiring students to pass a civics test in order to graduate, such as a measure recently introduced in Missouri.
But a voluntary, incentive-based program – where students who pass the test are recognized in some way by their teacher, school or district – would be a good starting point, he said. His two daughters, ages 10 and 12, will take the test at home regardless of whether it is required by their schools, Schmidt said.
“It’s about handing down this legacy of self-government from one generation to the next,” he said.
“Our job is to make sure that the process is protected, because at the end of the day, it’s this process of self-government that is America’s great contribution to the history of freedom around the world. And if we don’t talk about it in those terms and we don’t focus on that gift and that process, it doesn’t pass itself on automatically.”