Could you pass a citizenship test? States may make it graduation requirement.

North Dakota is the latest state mulling a requirement that students pass a citizenship test before they’re handed a diploma. At least seven other states are considering similar measures.

Mike McCleary/The Bismarck Tribune/AP
Kirsten Baesler, right, North Dakota state superintendent of schools, talks about a proposed legislative bill requiring all high school students in the state to pass a citizenship test Monday at the state Capitol in Bismarck. Behind Baesler is, l-r, Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, first lady Betsy Dalrymple, and Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, and Rep. Robert Hunskor, D-Newburg.

If you want to graduate from high school in North Dakota, you better start buffing up on your American history and government.

Lawmakers in North Dakota unveiled legislation Monday that would require high school students to get 60 questions right on a 100-question civics test before they graduate. These range from the number of justices on the Supreme Court to the number of amendments to the Constitution. Immigrants hoping to become US citizens must correctly answer six of 10 questions randomly chosen from the 100-question test.

North Dakota is the latest state mulling a requirement that students pass a citizenship test before they’re handed a diploma. At least seven other states are considering similar measures. It’s part of a broad effort to increase youth civic engagement, at a time when many worry that students know more about Taylor Swift than Zachary Taylor.

“The people who favor this have widely differing political beliefs,” said North Dakota first lady Betsy Dalrymple when announcing the measure on Monday. “But they share the belief that it is important for all Americans to know about the first principles of our constitutional government."

But some are skeptical that a citizenship test is the best way to get students excited about US government and politics. Others question whether the US citizenship test is the most logical way to promote youth engagement.

“The solution is not more testing of everything. We already have excessive testing going on in schools,” says Marya Levenson, director of the education program at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

Ms. Levenson – a former high school civics teacher herself – says schools should foster dialogue around unresolved issues such as immigration and gay marriage.

“The controversies are what really engage our students. We need to present multiple sides and ask our students to think themselves about how they would begin to resolve it,” Levenson says.

Even if a test can bolster students’ knowledge of government, the US citizenship test may not be the test for the job, says Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

“These types of tests evaluate encyclopedia knowledge,” Mr. West says, adding that the citizenship test “doesn’t really focus on broad issues or controversies, which tend to be the things that engage people in the political process.”

West points to the College Board’s government test as a more reliable tool to evaluate students’ mastery of civics.

The citizenship test given to new Americans is far from perfect. It isn’t a reliable measure of civics knowledge, according to a 2011 Michigan State University study, and political scientists say one question the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) put on the test could be incorrect – it implies the vice president is a member of the president’s Cabinet.

“USCIS doesn’t have any data that they offer to the public about this test in the way that testing companies would talk about their tests,” says Paula Winke, a professor at Michigan State University and author of the 2011 study. That means that, to determine whether or not the test they offer is reliable, states would have to run their own analyses. 

Supporters say a civics test is a step toward bolstering civics education in American schools. The exam is meant to be informative, not punitive, says Sam Stone, spokesperson for the Civics Education Initiative, the nonprofit pushing the test nationwide. Students would be able to take the test until they pass.

Announcing the legislation in North Dakota, Ms. Dalrymple said many students struggle with basic US history. Dalrymple cited studies showing many students don’t know that George Washington was the first US president.

“Every new citizen has to demonstrate this knowledge, so this is creating a community standard of what we want everyone to know,” Mr. Stone says. “This is a basic test.”

Schools would have flexibility in giving the test, Stone adds, meaning students could wind up taking anything from a 10-question verbal exam to a 100-question written test.

North Dakota legislators will take up the bill in January. South Dakota, Arizona, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Utah are all considering adopting the test as well, Stone told the AP.

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