High School Citizenship Test

High School Citizenship Test

Nick Barrett, Fall 2020

Parts of the United States have made it a requirement for high school students to take and pass the United States citizenship test in order to graduate and receive their high school diploma. The majority of the United States does not require high school students here in America to take this test, in fact only 17 states have it as a graduation requirement. This brings us to the question, Why is it necessary to have this test as a requirement? Over 65% of the country is not making this test mandatory for high school students. There are states that are still “under construction”, on this law that requires this test. This essentially means that they haven’t decided to put this in place, they are voting for it, or they might revisit this situation in the future and vote for this law later. Most states that don’t require the civics test are uncertain if they should add it. There are plenty of arguments from both sides in every state on whether or not this is beneficial for high schoolers and should be added to the curriculum. States as well as people are having difficulties on deciding what this would solve/help if all states across America were to add this. Some states argue that it’s beneficial for high schoolers to test their knowledge about the history of the United States and government while others don’t see why it’s needed. I feel that students already study about all our country and history all throughout their 12+ years of schooling, so to me it doesn’t make sense to make them take another history test when they have been learning and taking many other tests for many years.

The 17 states that currently have this law in effect are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin. This leaves the remaining 33 states not having to test high schoolers on this material. A study according to results of a national test administered by the education department, showed that the results from high school students that took the civics test were very concerning, “Only 9 percent of the kids were able to give two reasons why it is important for citizens to be involved in a democratic society, said Dr. Ravitch of a question posed to high school seniors. These are questions where you would expect voters to know how to answer”[1]. It seems like basic knowledge of the United States democracy is lacking in high schoolers. This could result in future voters not being informed on the decisions they make during elections and it could also result in a decrease of voters if they don’t know what they are voting for. We expect citizens to be informed and have knowledge when it comes to voting so they can make the best decision according to their political views. Also, the civics test is given to people who want to be a citizen here in the United States of America, and one of the most important rights each citizen has here is the right to vote, so they can have a voice in our government. All citizens have a voice in this country, whether they choose to use it or not.

Although some states are pushing for the civics test to be required for all high school students, the majority don’t require it. The citizenship test is mainly designed for one specific reason and that is to gain citizenship here in the United States of America. Every high school student that was born here in the United States will never need to take this test so they have been granted citizenship since they were born into this country. However, there are other students who are not citizens but are immigrants and taking this test would not only make them graduate high school but help prepare them to take it again someday if they wanted to become a citizen and pass this test. Either way it would help educate each individual about our country and the way our government works. An article written by Whitt Flora explains, “The problem is that civics is often viewed as a set of disconnected facts, not as a challenging and inspiring subject that will continue to interest us after high school.”[2] Civics education along with the test, is often viewed as many facts you just have to memorize and remember until you complete and pass the course. Instead of gaining knowledge about our country and how it runs, most students tend to familiarize themselves with the material that is related to the test and as soon as they pass, they forget about the material because there is no reason for them to remember it once they pass. I’m not saying that learning about key days and dates in our nation’s history isn’t important but it doesn’t provide the same challenges as everyday citizens experience. In other words as stated by Dan Carden, “It’s more effective for students to learn American government principles in the context of the state’s social studies standards, rather than simply memorizing a bunch of facts to pass a test and just as quickly forgetting them”[3]. I can relate to this from experience, there have been multiple times throughout my years of schooling where I memorized as much factual information as I could. Then when it came time to take the test, I would remember it and be able to get a good grade but then shortly after taking the test, I wouldn’t be able to remember the information that I got correct on the test. So instead of memorizing and forgetting information, it’s more important for all people to obtain and understand the information they are learning.

Some question the fairness of the citizenship test. People argue why immigrants have to know this material when the majority of United States citizens would fail this test to begin with. An Immigration software company called Immigration Direct puts this into perspective, “She argues that if U.S. citizens would generally not know the answer to this question, why should immigrants.”[4] Along with the almost perfect passing rating of the exam, the legitimacy of the exam has been questioned. There is no doubt that the lack of knowledge in U.S. citizens in civics isn’t very good but on the other hand, immigrants who prepare and practice for this test pass with ease. You would expect this scenario to be completely opposite of each other because citizens living here should already know about our country and government but yet they don’t and immigrants gaining citizenship in our country are the ones that seem to know more about the United States. I think what makes this topic so difficult for people to agree on is everyone has their own definition or opinion of what American citizenship is. People who live in U.S. territories aren’t allowed to vote for the president which many people disagree with. People will continue to disagree with who can gain citizenship into our country. David Campbell argues the following, “In light of the past research into external exams in subjects other than civics, we hypothesize that state-mandated assessments in civics result in greater political knowledge both for students currently in high school and young adults in the years immediately following high school (age 18-24). Specifically, we expect that civics assessments have the biggest effect in states where they matter most.”[5] In states that make this a high school graduation requirement, research has determined that the political knowledge is greater for those students then those who don’t take the civics exam. Even though the civics exam is meant for immigrants to obtain citizenship, we can also see it increases knowledge in young students. My feelings are mixed on whether or not the civics test should be a graduation requirement. On one side if you are already a citizen here there’s no need to take it other than becoming more knowledgeable about our government but on the other hand if you don’t have your citizenship it could be good practice for you if you get it in the future.

In conclusion, deciding whether or not all states should require high schoolers to take the citizenship test is difficult because of everyone’s different views and opinions. As of 2020, there are only 17 states that make this test a graduation requirement, leaving the remaining 33 states not making students have to take this test. I truly believe this number will rise in the future, eventually making every state in our country require this among students. The majority of states however teach civics education and all states require history for all high school students. Having the civics test as a requirement will help young high school students become more prepared and informed about our democracy here in the United States of America. Questions that are on this test should be known by U.S. voters, many argue. Many people argue that there are more to memorizing a bunch of disconnected facts about the United States and that it won’t help them after passing the test because they will forget the material shortly after. There is no denying that many students struggle with knowing civics education and basic information about our government. Being as informed as you possibly can is important especially when it comes to voting because it allows you to make the best possible choice based on your perspective. In a democracy, it’s important to know about how your country works. There is no question that both sides of the spectrum will never agree on the same, and the definition of citizenship will continue to change over time, so it’s important to keep future generations of citizens informed and educated so that they can be productive in society.


[1] Hedges, Chris. “35% of High School Seniors Fail National Civics Test.” New York Times

[2] Should high schools beef up history, civics classes?

[3] Requiring U.S. citizenship test for high school graduation clears first hurdle

[4] What is the purpose of the U.S. citizenship test?

[5] State-Level Civic Education Requirements and Political Knowledge

Further Reading


The State of Civics Education

Worcester State University Fall 2022