Last week Arizona became the first American state to require high school students to pass a citizenship test to graduate.
Ten other states are considering their own versions of a high school civics education requirement. Given this trend, you might wonder what lawmakers presume every high school grad must know about being an American. The short answer? Geography, history and the U.S. Constitution.
Here are some sample questions from the current naturalization civics test: “Where is the Statue of Liberty?” New York, Liberty Island and New Jersey are considered all acceptable answers. “What ocean is east of the United States?” The Atlantic. And “how many amendments does the constitution have?” Twenty-seven.
There are also questions about important historical figures such as Susan B. Anthony and Ben Franklin, and test takers may be asked to name one Native American tribe. The test also makes sure you know that you have to be 18 years old to vote.
Legislators may be raising this issue because one in three Americans fails the Naturalization Civics Test (more than 97 percent of immigrants applying for citizenship pass). In explaining why he introduced the high school requirement, New Jersey assemblyman Troy Singleton said:
I think so many folks in our country have fought and died for us to have these freedoms and understand everything it is to be an American… And I think from our perspective ensuring that our children have a deeper understanding of that as they move on and matriculate through high school is important.
But are landmarks and names really what the citizens need to know about what makes them American? Maybe we need a different notion of a “deeper understanding.” Our country was founded on the principle of keeping government in check. Knowing your rights and protecting yourself from government intrusion is distinctly American.
In light of that, here are some questions that I would like future and present citizens to be able to answer:
True or False:
- If the police knock and ask to enter your home, you don’t have to admit them unless they have a warrant signed by a judge. (True)
- If the police come to your home and ask you to step out and you do, they no longer need a warrant for your arrest. (True)
- If you are arrested outside and you accept any offers to let you go inside — to get dressed, for instance — the police can escort you inside and then search the rooms you enter without a warrant. (True)
- The police are not allowed to lie to you. (False)
- The right to videotape the police depends on the state you live in. Twelve states have adopted “eavesdropping” laws that prohibit videotaping police without the officer’s consent. (True)
- The police are allowed to delete photographs or videos on your phone under any circumstances. (False)
- If you feel that your rights have been violated by the police, to whom could you file a written complaint?
- Police department’ internal affairs division
- Civil complaint board
- All of the above
(All of the above)
- Under OSHA regulations, an employer cannot retaliate against whistleblowers by:
3. Denial of benefits
4. Reducing pay or hours
6. All of the above.
(All of the Above)
Imagine what our country would look like if we required high school graduates to know their privacy rights, current consumer protection laws and OSHA regulations. Understanding what it means to be American would be less about knowing history and geography and more about knowing how to protect oneself from the unjust encroachment of one’s rights. Surely, learning about one’s legal rights is apt to be better preparation for becoming a U.S. citizen than memorizing facts about Ben Franklin. Perhaps the real question is, Why don’t the current crop of civics exams care?