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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

A republic, if you can understand it

Published: September 25, 2009
Section: Opinions

<i>ILLUSTRATION BY Andrea Fishman/The Hoot</i>

ILLUSTRATION BY Andrea Fishman/The Hoot

About a month ago, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs tried a little experiment. It charged Strategic Vision, an internationally recognized research firm, with administering a acitizenship test to 1,000 Oklahoma public high school students in order to determine their levels of proficiency in civics.

The students were given the same test that the US Citizenship and Immigration Services administers to immigrants who wish to become citizens. The test consists of ten questions—chosen at random from the USCIS question bank—and candidates must answer at least six correctly in order to pass.

It’s not a particularly difficult test, even to those who are new to the country. In fact, the USCIS recently gave an updated version of the test to 6,000 immigrant applicants and found that 92 percent passed on the first try. Obviously, the OCPA and Strategic Visions expected the students—most of whom having spent their entire lives in the United States—to be able to, at the very least, match that percentage.

But this was not the case. An astonished post on the OCPA website reported the student’s scores:

“[Y]ou the reader can judge whether a 92 percent passing rate is a reasonable expectation for Oklahoma’s high school students. Unfortunately, Oklahoma high school students scored alarmingly low on the test, passing at a rate of only 2.8 percent. That is not a misprint.”

You know you’re reporting bad news when you have to assure your reader that what they are reading is true, no matter how unbelievable it is. Seriously, 2.8 percent? That’s it?

Let me reiterate what I said before: it’s not a particularly difficult test. Questions include such no-brainers as, “Who was the first president of the United States?” (11 percent said George Washington), “How many justices are on the Supreme Court?” (ten percent said nine), “Who is in charge of the executive branch?” (29 percent said the president), and “What ocean is on the east coast of the United States?” (61 percent said the Atlantic—hey, more than half!)

If there were any greater indicators that American students lack civics knowledge, I have not seen them. But this needs to be more than just a shocking statistic; it needs to be a call to action. How can we allow our schools to train a generation of students to be woefully ignorant of the basic tenants of the society that they will someday come to own? We can’t. Any democracy, from the national level down to the local level, depends on informed participants. And before we can tackle any other major problems that threaten our nation—the economic downturn; the healthcare crisis; our two wars—we need to ensure that the process by which such important decisions will be made remains sound.

But this will not be the case if our supposed “active citizens” don’t know the first thing about their own country. We must ask ourselves, then, how we will solve this problem.

I would suggest using a system that is already in place—state assessment tests. To my knowledge, every state has its own standardized test that is used to evaluate student abilities. In Massachusetts, for example, students take the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test every year from third grade through eighth grade, and again in tenth grade. Tenth graders must pass both the Mathematics and English sections of the test in order to be eligible for their high school diplomas when they graduate two years later.

Would it be unreasonable to add a civics section to tests like these and require students to pass them? I don’t think so. Insisting that high school graduates—who have either already reached voting age or soon will—understand their role in government makes just as much sense as insisting that they know their multiplication tables or their parts of speech.

Plus, adding a civics section to standardized tests would have a top-down effect on schools, because it would encouraging them to include more civics-based classes. After all, nothing scares a school system more than the possibility of lower test scores.

The result could be the beginning of a badly needed restructuring of high school curriculum. Think back to your high school years for a moment. What were your graduation requirements? If I remember correctly, my school didn’t have separate civics classes, and only mandated that students take three years of history classes (if that). It wasn’t enough. I see no reason why students shouldn’t be taking at least one history/civics class every year. I think schools would be more willing to implement such a change if their students suddenly found themselves facing a test on the subject.

I don’t want to sound like some No-Child-Left-Behind toting proponent of standardized testing, because by no means do I see them as the solution to all of our education problems. But in this case, they offer two advantages. They lay down strict guidelines for schools to adhere to, and they are comprehensive. With average civics knowledge across the country about on par with that of those unfortunate Oklahoma high school students, an approach that begins with these kinds of tests could help immensely. It’ll have to. I cannot stress enough how unsustainable our lack of knowledge is.

According to legend, when Benjamin Franklin walked out of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia upon the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787, a woman on the street asked him what kind of government the delegates had formed. He replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

We know that Franklin and his colleagues feared tyranny above all else. They crafted a Constitution that would limit government power by giving people an active role and allowing them to keep a watchful eye on their leaders. But I wonder if they ever foresaw an America in which the people stopped being watchdogs; in which they stopped knowing and stopped caring about the system they were meant to uphold. I wonder what they would say now about our chances of keeping our republic.