Eight States Debating Citizenship Test for High School Graduation

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Pending legislation in North Dakota would require high school seniors, beginning in 2016, to pass a 100-question civics test to graduate.

It was North Dakota’s first lady Betsey Dalrymple, along with educators and lawmakers, who unveiled the bill, which will be considered when lawmakers reconvene in January, writes James McPherson of the Associated Press.  Immigrants who are applying for US citizenship must answer six out of 10 questions which are pulled from the citizenship exam and are asked verbally.

“Ninety percent of new Americans pass it on their first try,” first lady Betsy Dalrymple said, but noted studies have shown that many students don’t know that George Washington was the first U.S. president. “The goal is to know basic facts about our Republic.”

South Dakota, Arizona, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Utah are pushing for the same type of testing, according to Sam Stone, who is spokesman for the nonprofit Joe Foss Institute. The organization is named after the late South Dakota governor who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for service during World War II. Stone says that kids today have a remarkable knowledge of pop culture, but very few know much about critical historical information.

The target is to have all US states enacting this type of law by 2017 at which time the Constitution will become 230 years old. North Dakota School Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said the test would not impose any financial strain on schools since the questions are published on the US Department of Homeland Security website.

The initiative has bipartisan support, according to Dalrymple and Stone, and the bill will be sponsored by House Education Chair Mike Nathe (R-Bismarck).

A passing grade for the test will be at least 60 of the 100 questions answered correctly. Amy R. Sisk, writing for The Bismarck Tribune, reports that in 2009 it was found that only 3% of Oklahoma students and 4% in Arizona could answer 60% of such civics questions correctly.

Assistant principal at Century High School, Sharon Espeland, says the curriculum that is in place would be sufficient for students to learn what is necessary to pass the test. She adds that students will need adequate time to take the test, which could take longer than the average 50 minutes allotted for classes.

Baesler noted that schools could choose to give the exam all at once or break it up so that students could take a portion of the test each year. Stone says the test may be administered as a fill-in-the blank exam or a multiple choice test. Stone would like to see the fill-in-the-blank style used because he believes that writing the answers demonstrates that students know the material.

The graduation requirement would be in place for public and non-public schools in the state, but there would likely be exceptions for students with disabilities. Students would be allowed to take the test until they receive a passing grade.

The Joe Foss Institute is affiliated with the national Civics Education Initiative and has the support of former US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Carl Bernstein and actor Joe Mantegna, writes Mike Nowatzki reporting for The Jamestown Sun.