Should Oklahoma require a civics test to graduate high school?

Photo by the Town of Chapel Hill.
Photo by the Town of Chapel Hill.

This post is by OK Policy intern Dakota States. Dakota is a recent graduate of Oklahoma State University, where he studied political science, environmental sociology, and screen studies.

A common stereotype of high school civics is a teacher who’d rather be coaching reading directly off slides as he unenthusiastically tells students about the branches of government. Admittedly, that stereotype is unfair to many creative and talented social studies teachers in our state; however, it’s true that civics has not typically been given the same importance as other high school academic and social goals.

Students often leave high school with an incomplete understanding of how the social and political structures around them function. That may be why an Annenberg Public Policy Center survey found that 35 percent of Americans were not able to name a single branch of government and only 32 percent could correctly identify the U.S. Constitution as the supreme law of the land.

Low civics knowledge may also be driving Oklahoma’s and the nation’s low levels of civic participation. If citizens are unaware of how our democracy works, they are less likely to participate. Conversely, a 2010 Harvard study found that students are 3 to 6 percentage points more likely to vote if they completed a year of American Government/Civics Education in high school.

So how do we fix this low civics knowledge dilemma? The Civics Education Initiative thinks the answer is mandating students pass a civics exam to graduate high school. This initiative, created and led by former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, has set a goal to have every state implementing a civics requirement for high school graduates by September 17, 2017, the 230th birthday of the Constitution. The initiative was created in 2009 as a response to a decline in civic knowledge and participation throughout the United States. Under their proposal, students could pass the exam at any point in their high school career.

The exam is essentially the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Citizenship Civics Exam — the same test administered to immigrants who seek to become U.S. citizens. It consists of 100 civics questions. Examples might be “Who is the current president of the United States?”, or “How many Supreme Court Justices serve on the Supreme Court?” You can find more sample exam questions here.

The US has a long way to go for citizens to pass this test. According to Xavier University’s National Civic Literacy Survey, one in three of natural born Americans would fail the citizenship test. On the other hand, 97.5% of hopeful immigrants pass the exam on the first try.

Recently, Arizona, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Caroline, South Dakota, and Utah have signed on to the Civics Education Initiative. A study in Arizona and Oklahoma found less than 4 percent of high school students would currently pass the citizenship test.

To help prepare students for the exam, the Civics Education Initiative encourages the use of iCivics, which is a series of interactive games designed to prepare and motivate students to learn civics. The initiative has bipartisan support across the country, including Oklahoma where Senator Tom Coburn; Former Congressman Dan Boren; Attorney General Scott Pruitt; and Tulsa Councilor G.T. Bynum announced recently the Oklahoma Civics Education Initiative.

One concern with mandatory civics testing is with the potential of politicization of the curriculum. Educators and both conservative and progressive activists have criticized curriculum and testing changes that they see as inserting political basis into our schools. As the United States’ political system continues to polarize, we may risk turning civics class into just another front in divisive political battles. Currently, the Immigration Exam is provided by the Department of Homeland Security, usually as an oral examination; however time does not stop and history continues to develop, leaving room for exam question modifications.

Another major concern is whether we should add yet another mandated test when many are already raising alarms about over-testing in Oklahoma schools. During the campaign, Oklahoma’s newly elected State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister spoke out against overtesting. It’s clear that any new test must make a very strong case to be added, if it’s not part of a larger reform that reduces the frequency of testing overall.

However, despite the possibility for exam question biases and valid concerns about overtesting, civics education is fundamentally important for any democracy. A civics examination mandate, with the use of an interactive aid, for high school students might not fully fix the problem of low civics education nationwide but it certainly would be one part of a potential solution.

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One thought on “Should Oklahoma require a civics test to graduate high school?

  1. I graduated high school in Tulsa in 1967. I believe we had a civics class, maybe half a semester, possibly part of US history in Junior Highschool. I was too young to have a clue what they were talking about and I did not care. I think some basics might have stuck but I really learned civics in a US history class at Tulsa Junior College.
    It would be good to compare our form of government to governments in other developed countries to give more insight into how our government functions in comparison to others. Makes the knowledge more meaningful.

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