Federal citizenship test: What should a good citizen really know about America?

Quick: how many amendments to the U.S. Constitution have been ratified?

The answer is 27. The question comes from the federal test required for new citizens. Arizona and North Dakota recently made passing that test a graduation requirement for all their high school students, and several other states are considering the idea.  I fear imposing this test will actually reduce the amount of civics our young people study and remember.

More important than simply retaining the number 27, we should understand what the Constitution is, where it came from, and what great purposes it serves

The federal citizenship test consists of 100 multiple-choice questions; individuals see a random sample of 10. The easiest way to prepare for it is to memorize the 100 right answers. When you see the key word “amendment,” you remember to choose “27.”

More important than simply retaining the number 27, we should understand what the Constitution is, where it came from, and what great purposes it serves

But what are the chances that a student who knows “27” will remember it a decade later—let alone serve and protect our nation better as a result?

What a good citizen should know is a challenging question. More important than simply retaining the number 27, we should understand what the Constitution is, where it came from, and what great purposes it serves. I think we should know that the Constitution is open to amendments, but that amending it is hard. If you guess there have been 500 successful amendments, you are way off base. But if you thought there were 29 instead of 27, don’t kick yourself.

Good citizens should have thought hard about at least some of the actual amendments—what they say and what reasonable, well-informed people have argued about their implications. What, for instance, does it mean that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated”? What is “reasonable”? Is collecting a list of my phone calls a “search”? Is my cell phone an “effect”?

These are hard, complex, interesting, and sometimes inspiring questions. And of course, there are other important topics to study in a civics class, going well beyond amendments to the Constitution.

To ensure civics is taught, states must require civics courses, prepare and support the teachers who teach them, and assess students in ways that really challenge them to learn, remember, and apply their knowledge.

Every state includes civics in its educational standards, and most students who reach the 12th grade have taken at least a semester course on U.S. government or civics. The best way to track what they know is to look at the NAEP Civics Assessment, which is given to thousands of students. Even though they may not have studied civics lately, very close to half (48.12%) of fourth graders—typically 10-year-olds—could correctly identify the constitutional roles of the president on the latest NAEP, in 2010. More than two thirds of graduating high school seniors could explain Marbury v. Madison.

And yet when the Annenberg Public Policy Center recently asked random adults to name the branches of government—surely a very easy question—only a third could name all three.

It seems that many of our kids are studying and learning basic civics, yet most adults flunk pop quizzes on the same topic. The obvious explanation is that adults have forgotten what they learned in school—just as I have forgotten all the chemistry I studied in tenth grade.

The adults who do know their civics are usually people who follow and discuss current events with interest. Every time Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court clash, those of us who are interested in the news remember the structure of our constitution. But if we learned in high school that civics is basically boring, a set of disconnected facts of no importance in our lives, we are less likely to follow the news voluntarily as adults. And then the branches of government may be like the Periodic Table—material we crammed for a test and long ago forgot.

Civics is important. Making kids pass the federal citizenship test is a well-intentioned effort to strengthen it. But it is the wrong approach. It implies that citizens should memorize disconnected facts, when what we need is deep knowledge, sincere interest, and true commitment.

Peter Levine is the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs and Director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University .