Opinion: Can you pass the citizenship exam?

Children participate in a U.S. citizenship ceremony at

Children participate in a U.S. citizenship ceremony at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services district office in Manhattan. (Jan. 29, 2013) (Credit: Getty Images)

Americans just celebrated the Fourth of July, but there's reason to be concerned that the purpose of our star-spangled national holiday -- the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of our nation -- is lost on a growing number of us.

Rather than accept viral ignorance as inevitable, the Citizenship First project at Harlem-based Democracy Prep, a New York City charter school widely regarded as one of the nation's exemplary urban high schools, has a plan to avoid it.

Citizenship First has issued Challenge 2026: By the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, every high school graduate will be able to pass the U.S. citizenship exam.


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That's the same test of the basics of Americanism that 97 percent of naturalized citizens currently take and pass, but which most U.S. high school students have flunked in research samplings.

Most test items are not especially challenging -- for example, naming one right or freedom in the First Amendment, or identifying the first 10 amendments to the Constitution as the Bill of Rights.

Sound easy? When the American Revolution Center asked a broad sample of Americans about U.S. history, it learned that more than half of adult Americans thought the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation or The War of 1812 had come before the Declaration of Independence.

Why not see how many in your household can pass the U.S. Citizenship Exam? It is available at citizenshipfirst.us/exam -- 12 out of 20 correct is a passing score.

You may decide it's time to let your local school board know you'd like to see a greater emphasis on history in the curriculum. After all, preparing the young for self-government is a founding mission of American public education.

In fact, more than one-third of the nation's high school seniors scored "below basic" on the National Assessment of Educational Progress' civics test (known as the Nation's Report Card), with "basic" being the most bare-bones level of competence. An astounding 62 percent of black and 50 percent of Hispanic seniors scored "below basic." Given the stratification still prevalent in U.S. schools, that statistic suggests the disparity of history teaching across different schools when it's not emphasized in state standards or in school curriculum.

What's worse, the federal Department of Education plans to severely cut future NAEP testing of history and civics to save money. If that happens, we may lose track entirely of how much our students are learning, or not learning, about our common heritage and responsibilities as free citizens.

There are many reasons Americans don't know much about history or civics. A short explanation is that the education establishment no longer values history as a serious discipline.

A recent 50-state study by the Lexington Institute -- a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank -- found that few states any longer give even lip service to the idea that a university major in history ought to be a requirement for teaching high-school history. A great many state certifiers of history teachers allow a wide array of alternatives that sometimes omit U.S. history entirely.

In New York, candidates to teach high school history must earn their bachelor's degree while taking a number of college social studies courses that can, but do not need to, include American history. Candidates must then pass state tests including a social studies exam, but with only 35 percent of its content focused on history.

Requiring all candidates for a high school diploma to pass the U.S. Citizenship Exam might be one way to raise public awareness and begin to exert pressure to restore this essential knowledge to the K-12 curriculum.

There are 12 more Fourths of July before our nation's 250th anniversary. Take a peek at the exam, and see how you do.

Robert Holland and Don Soifer are policy analysts with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

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