‘What year was the United States Constitution written,” I asked. “Was it 1902, 1787, 1802, or 1998?”
Mike, the student to whom I posed this question, rolled his eyes at my query as if to say: “You’re kidding, right?”
This was, I knew, one of the questions posed on the U.S. citizenship exam for which he was studying.
Mike was not a student in the traditional sense, but a Harvard College employee in his mid-forties. He was participating in the school’s Citizenship Tutoring program, in which current students teach American civics to those looking to become naturalized citizens. It was 2008, and I was a student tutor.
Over the course of the semester, I marveled at Mike’s grasp of the American system of government. He eventually passed his citizenship examination with flying colors and is now an actively engaged citizen who regularly votes and volunteers in his community.
With a new school year about to start, Wisconsin’s juniors and seniors will soon be getting their own exposure to civic education. Research has shown that such instruction makes students more likely to vote and volunteer; it even boosts their self-esteem.
All 50 states require high schools to offer at least one course in American government. But few standards cover skills beyond mere factual knowledge, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning at Tufts University. Only 10 states mandate teachers of government or civics to be certified in the subject.
Not surprisingly, national civics scores have stagnated. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, less than a quarter of the nation’s eighth graders are proficient in the subject, meaning they could identify a purpose of the U.S. Constitution or recognize a role performed by the Supreme Court.
Within the last two years, state government leaders have expressed dismay at how few people understand the workings of the U.S. government. As a result, several states — including Wisconsin — now require the completion of a civics assessment to receive a high school diploma.
The Badger State evaluation consists of 100 questions taken directly from the naturalization exam administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Participants must correctly answer 60 questions to pass.
Unfortunately, the bill did not allocate any additional funds for school districts to test, grade or keep records of student scores. Instead of facilitating in-depth dialogues, some school districts have simply posted the questions and answers on their respective websites for students to memorize. A mere multiple-choice assessment does not promote the relevance of citizenship to students’ lives.
The return to a more operational form of civics education will require much effort. The first step is to take an honest assessment of where we currently stand.
Thirty states already administer their own comprehensive civic health surveys to measure how much people trust their neighbors, are active in their communities and interact with their government. The resulting reports examine not only voter turnout and volunteerism but also group membership and family relationships among different demographic groups.
Wisconsin must do the same. Only then can we understand Wisconsin’s strengths and weaknesses, and take steps to improve opportunities to increase civic engagement, build stronger communities and advance our democracy.