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Increasingly, legislatures across the United States are thinking about requiring or are in fact requiring the use of the federal government’s naturalization test for graduation. The hope is that it will ensure that students become good citizens and have a foundation of content knowledge that they can draw on as good citizens. Unfortunately, the research really is mixed on this, and no current evidence exists that shows the test as a good measure of civic learning. It is important to note, as discussions on this may pick up steam here in Florida, that the state ALREADY has a dedicated civics course and assessment in middle school and that much of the federal naturalization test covers material students are already assessed on in the high school US history course. Some points to consider:

  • The Naturalization Test is not an adequate measure of civic learning. Because it measures only memorized content and not actual understanding or implementation, it is too easy to pass with little study or instruction. There is also no evidence that implementing this test would result in greater civic engagement (Feinberg and Doppen, 2010; Hess, 2015; Levine, 2015; Winke, 2011).
  • The Naturalization Test, as delivered to immigrants seeking citizenship, is an oral exam that requires examinees to answer only 6 of 10 (out of 100 questions) correctly (Hess, 2015; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, n.d., para. 1). Thus, proposed use of the test to measure student civic learning does not in fact reflect how it is used by the federal government with new citizens.
  • Building on the first bullet, civic learning and understanding for effective and engaged citizenship requires more than simple content knowledge. Any curriculum and assessment of civic learning and understanding requires ensuring that students are engaged with the content and capable of demonstrating what it means to be a citizen, rather than simply reciting rote knowledge. Rote knowledge of civics content does equal understanding what it means to be a citizen (Feinberg and Doppen, 2010; Hess, 2015; Levine, 2015; Torney-Purta and Lopez, 2006).
  • Requiring an additional assessment for graduation would impose unnecessary burdens on students, teachers, and schools in a time when resources are strained (especially in social studies) and Florida’s current assessment schedule is under attack. An assessment based on the Naturalization Test, rather than on the current state social studies standards, would result in poor instruction while also violating Florida statute, which requires instruction aligned with the state standards, and thus would require a rewrite of the state social studies standards (Hahn, 1999; Public K-12 Education Required Instruction, 2014).
  • Much of the material measured on the 100 item Naturalization Test is already contained in the US History course. As such, students are already given a required assessment that measures certain facts of civics, geography, and history.
  • Florida already assesses civics at the middle school level. This is required by the Sandra Day O’Connor Act of 2013. The benchmarks, available for review at http://floridacitizen.org/resources/middle, go deeper than is required of the Naturalization Test.
  • If the state wishes to add an additional assessment to measure elements of civic understanding, the current civics assessment provided by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a sample of which is available at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/about/booklets.aspx, would be a better choice. It measures basic content knowledge (like the Naturalization Test) while also assessing skills and dispositions. These are more accurate measures of civic understanding (Hess, 2015).

Reasonable people can certainly disagree about this, and it cannot be denied that something needs to be done to better engage young people in the development of civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions that contribute to civic engagement. But is another (multiple choice rote learning) assessment on material that is unlikely to actually evaluate whether students are ready to be citizens really the way to go? Think about it like this. Students ALL know the Pledge of Allegiance. They say it every day. They have it memorized. But does the fact that they know and can recite the Pledge mean they actually understand it or even care about it? That is what we need to ask ourselves when we contemplate adding this new requirement on top of what teachers and students are already doing. 

References

Feinberg, J. & Doppen, F. (2010). High school students’ knowledge and notions of citizenship. The Social
Studies, 101
(3), 111-116.

Hahn, C. L. (1999). Challenges to civic education in the United States. In J. Torney-Purta, J. Schwille, &
J.A. Amadeo (Eds.). Civic education across countries: Twenty four national case studies from the IEA
civic education project
(pp.583-607). Amsterdam: The International Association for the Evaluation of
Educational Achievement.

Hess, D. (2015, February 12). Council of State Social Studies Specialists civics discussion [Webinar]. In
CS4 Webinar Series. Retrieved from
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1pF6W3Zxix1Z2llcXh5ZlpxVDQ/view.

K-20 Education Code, Public K-12 Education, Fla Stat. §  1003.41-1003.4995. Retrieved from   http://www.leg.state.fl.us/STATUTES/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&Search_String=&URL=1000-1099/1003/Sections/1003.42.html.

Levine, P. (2015, February 08). Good citizenship transcends a test: Opposing view. USA Today. Retrieved
from http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2015/02/08/citizenship-civics-social-studies-editorials-debates/23088621/

Torney-Purta, J. & Lopez, S. (2006). Developing citizenship competencies from kindergarten through
grade 12: Knowledge, skills, dispositions
. Denver: Education Commission of the States and National
Center for Learning and Citizenship.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (n.d. ). Study materials for the civics test. Retrieved from
http://www.uscis.gov/citizenship/learners/study-test/study-materials-civics-test.

Winke, P. (2011). Investigating the reliability of the civics component of the U.S. Naturalization Test.
Language Assessment Quarterly, 8
(4), 317-341.

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