North Dakota Joins High School Civics Initiative

Published December 26, 2014

North Dakota has joined several states considering adoption of civics education requirements for graduating high school students. Betsy Dalrymple, the state’s first lady, joined several state legislators in making the Dec. 1 announcement they’d introduce a bill on the matter at the beginning of the 2015 legislatives session.

Language for the bill has yet to be written, but it will likely adhere to a draft bill used by other states adopting the requirements, including Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah. Louisiana is expected to announce it will join the effort as well.

The draft bill calls for passing 60 percent of a 100 question test given to high school students as a condition for graduation or General Educational Development certification. The 100 questions will be the same as those given by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to immigrant applicants for U.S. citizenship.

Inspiring Public Service

Championing the push for the civics graduation requirement is championed by the Civics Education Initiative (CEI) of the Scottsdale, Arizona-based Joe Foss Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group established to educate youth on the importance of U.S. freedoms and to inspire them to public service. CEI staff composed the draft legislation for the civics requirement.

“The Civics Education Initiative is really simple, which is part of what makes it so appealing to so many people,” said CEI spokesperson Sam Stone. “We’re asking every state to pass a law requiring high school students to take and pass the USCIS Citizenship Civics Test, the test all new immigrants are required to take before becoming citizens.”

The test is made up of 100 basic questions about U.S. government, history, and geography—things everyone should know but far, far too few people do, Stone said. An estimated 40 percent of U.S. schools have no civics requirement at all, he said.

Disturbing Test Results

“We’ve also heard that there are legislators in a couple of states that may look to do this on their own, and since our goal is to pass the bill in all 50 states by September 17, 2017—the 230th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution—we’ll take all the help we can get,” said Stone. “Our only concern in that case is making sure it gets done, that kids don’t miss out on learning about this stuff that’s going to impact them every day for the rest of their lives.”

Citing 2010 statistics indicating less than 25 percent of high school seniors display proficiency in civic knowledge, Stone says results of current testing given to students in grades 4, 8, and 12 are disturbing because students in grade 4 earned the best results.

“Unfortunately, this problem has been growing for a while, and isn’t limited to kids,” said Stone. “A 2010 Pew Research Center poll of American adults found that only 59 percent of respondents could name the vice president in an open-ended question.”

“We’ve developed a really good system to help ensure passage: recruiting state co-chairs from across the political spectrum, lining up bill sponsors, etc. So if any of these legislators considering the bill on their own want our support, we’re here for them,” he said.

Shocking Ignorance

According to an Annenberg Public Policy Center survey (September 2014), only 36 percent of Americans could name all three branches of our federal government. Thirty-five percent couldn’t name even one.

Studies by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and the Goldwater Institute in Arizona showed students in those states had less than a 5 percent passing rate on the USCIS Citizenship Civics Test, the same test more than 92 percent of new immigrants manage to pass on their first try.

“We’ve all seen the segments on late night TV featuring one person after another stumbling over the most basic civics questions, and sure, everyone laughs at that,” said Stone. “But we shouldn’t be [laughing]. Our system of government simply doesn’t work without citizens who know how to make it work.”

Stone adds CEI has co-chairs and supporters on both sides of the aisle in every state in which it’s been launched. “It’s not [just] bipartisan; it’s simply American,” he said.

‘Informed, Engaged Citizens’

“When we did national polling to gauge support for the initiative, over 68 percent of people in every age, race, and political demographic said they support the initiative. Overall support for the initiative was 74 percent. Almost no issue ever polls with that kind of support, but people all over the country and across the political spectrum understand that our lack of civics knowledge isn’t just a problem; it’s a catastrophe in the making,” said Stone.

The Joe Foss Institute is developing a website schools, students, and others can use to take the test and get their results certified. The JFI site will be “fill-in-the-blank” and will eventually also include free online course and study materials.

Stone said in addition to leaving states as much room as possible to adapt this bill to meet their own needs, CEI encourages making the test part of the classroom experience.

“Let kids take the test as many times as they need to pass. No kid should ever be denied a diploma because of this test, just like no kid should be denied the basic knowledge they need to become informed, engaged citizens,” he said.

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is a member of The Heartland Institute’s Board of Policy Advisors.

Image by James Emery.