Let's Set a National Standard for Our Students—a Really Low One

We're not going to hit the No Child Left Behind goals just yet. But what if every high schooler had to pass the citizenship test we give to immigrants?

Carlos Osorio/AP

When the alarm is sounded over the poor performance of our schools, we usually hear about children's baleful performance in reading, math, and science. On the most recent round of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, only one in three U.S. 8th graders scored "proficient" or higher in those three essential subjects. But if that's a crisis, our performance in history and civics is near collapse: a mere 22 percent of 8th graders score proficient or higher in civics; in history, only 18 percent.

Last week, the Pioneer Institute released a white paper I wrote with Sandra Stotsky and Gilbert Sewall, Shortchanging the Future: The Crisis of History and Civics in American Schools. It traces a long spiral of decline in curriculum, textbooks, and pedagogy, leading to this present, dispiriting place.

When it came time to make policy recommendations, however, my colleagues and I were flummoxed. Higher standards? High-stakes tests? There are already several sets of perfectly fine state standards, and no shortage of well-funded initiatives over the years, none of which have moved the needle significantly over the past several decades. Ultimately we settled on a modest idea: use the existing U.S. Citizenship Test as a graduation requirement from public high school and admission to college.

The test is fairly simple and straightforward -- the kind of thing every schoolboy knew when schoolboys used to know things: What are checks and balances? Name a freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment. What did Susan B. Anthony or Martin Luther King, Jr. do? There are 100 questions on the test. Would-be citizens are asked ten; answer six correctly and you pass.

Small beer? Without a doubt. Acquiring the basic knowledge of civics and history needed to pass the test can be done with a few hours of concerted study. So why recommend this as a final exam for public education?

One reason is that our national store of common knowledge has all but disappeared. We increasingly live inside our own information, entertainment, and cultural bubbles. For a nation that is united not by ties of blood and soil, but by shared ideals, this is a serious problem. At a conference on civic education at Harvard Law School last week, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter described the U.S. Constitution as a value system. The loss of history and our civic ignorance, he noted is "a defeat of that value system." A "disuniting tendency is built into the very fabric of the U.S.," he noted. Our shared history and civic ideals are the forces that keep us from flying apart. We lose them at our peril.

A second reason is that American education simply needs a proof point: a clear demonstration that we educators can set a common goal, however modest, and actually get it done. The U.S. Citizenship Test is a worthy bid. A study by Xavier University showed that 97.5 percent of naturalized citizens passed the citizenship test in 2010. At present only two of three Americans can clear this very low bar, and presumably even fewer students. If nearly every naturalized citizen can master these few basic facts of history and civics -- and we insist by law that they do so -- surely it is not asking too much for native-born citizens to do the same.

Getting this done, and doing so quickly, would go a long way toward restoring some faith in our schools and reining in some of the purely aspirational goals of our big thinkers in education. Remember, it is still the law of the land under No Child Left Behind that every child in America will be reading on grade level eight months from now, a goal no ordinary American has ever taken seriously. Arne Duncan, our earnest Education Secretary, likes to describe the Obama Administration's Race to the Top program as "education reform's moon shot." Yes, let's have a moon shot. But let's also, with this nation-wide citizenship test, show we can safely walk everyone across the street to the launching pad.

Education reformers often complain that we lack a sense of urgency, but we also lack a sense of scale. It is all well and good to set big, audacious goals and to raise the expectations for all students. By all means, let's raise the ceiling. But let's also set the floor. Rebuilding our shared national base of historic and civic knowledge is a good and obvious place to start.