New Arizona Civics Test Requirement Might Just Turn High-Schoolers Into Well-Informed Voters

Do you know who the current president is? The number of amendments the Constitution contains? How many amendments there are? How about how long a senator's term lasts? For some high school seniors beginning in 2017, answering these questions will be a graduation requirementlawmakers in Arizona have passed a bill requiring students to pass a civics test in order to leave high school, drawing questions from the same test that is administered to those seeking American citizenship. And considering that in 2012, one in three Americans surveyed would actually fail this test, it might not be a bad idea to make it a graduation requirement, not only in Arizona, but in states across the union as well.

In November, my faith in the general collegiate populace was crushed by PoliTech's release of a rather terrifying three-minute video, in which college students at Texas Tech University were asked questions like, "Who won the Civil War?" and "Who is our vice president?" Answers to these included, "The South?" and "Is that a trick question?" This general civic cluelessness about current events and American history is not a new phenomenon — in 1998, 38 percent of respondents in a Maritz AmeriPoll of 1,000 people did not know that the national anthem is "The Star Spangled Banner" and 40 percent of respondents didn't know that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.

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In 2009, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute gave out slightly more challenging questions, like "Name all three branches of the American government." Only half of the 2,500 participants could list off the executive, legislative and judicial branches. So yes, the United States has a problem with civic awareness, and as a country that prides itself on our representative democracy and our right to vote, not being able to name our vice president or president doesn't bode well for our collective futures.

So in order to provide some recompense for this civic offense, the Arizona Legislature has decided to pass a rather contentious bill that would require graduating seniors to correctly answer 60 out of 100 questions given on the United States citizenship test (which you can take here), including questions on principles of American democracy, our system of government, civic rights and responsibilities, and American history. There is also a small section on "integrated civics," which includes questions about geography, American symbols, and national holidays.

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Time and time again, native-born Americans have failed to pass this test — a USA Today survey showed that only 65 percent of respondents were able to score a 60 percent, and a Newsweek survey found similar results, with only 62 percent of participants passing the test. As for immigrants hoping to gain citizenship, only 9 percent fail. Of course, immigrants study for the test, but the vast majority of the questions include material that is covered in grade school or should be common knowledge — after all, what excuse do you really have for not knowing the names Obama and Biden?

Of course, being able to pass this test wouldn't automatically make graduating seniors more aware or more engaged participants in civil discourse. After all, high school (and college) students seem to have mastered the art of learning material for a test, only to forget it as soon as examination periods are over. And as some critics of the bill have pointed out, Arizona is in the midst of a deficit and an education funding dilemma, and this legislation seems to be rather superfluous in comparison.

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But on the contrary, such a bill is crucial to establishing the sort of public that is necessary to better address the issues that plague our country today, and will continue to plague the United States in generations to come. Solutions to policy issues might be made in the chambers of state capitols and Washington D.C., but American voters are responsible for making the decisions that determine which individuals sit in those chambers. And in order to make informed decisions and to accurately represent the entirety of the country, the bottom line is, we need more people to participate (and participate responsibly) in our democracy.

Voter turnout in the November midterms was the lowest it had ever been in 72 years — since World War II, in fact. In 43 out of the (how many?) 50 states in the union, less than half the eligible population went to the polls. Not a single state broke 60 percent. In the three largest states, California, Texas, and New York, less than 33 percent of voters turned out, and nationally, only 36.3 percent of the populace voted. Considering how woefully uninformed the average American seems to be about the workings of government, perhaps that wasn't even the worst thing in the world.

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And this is a problem — while being unsure of what the names of the two major political parties are or not knowing which powers belong to the states and which belong to the federal government might not seem like the most important facts to know off the top of your head, the simple fact of the matter is, being aware of these basic tenets of our government and our history is crucial in establishing the interest that is needed to develop well-informed, responsible participants in American democracy. Low voter turnout speaks volumes to the overall lack in interest and appreciation for our very valuable system of government, one that seems to represent fewer and fewer Americans as voter turnout continues to drop.

Passing a civics test won't solve any problems immediately, certainly, but at the very least, it will begin to fill the enormous gap that seems to exist in our basic knowledge base when it comes to our rights and responsibilities. And if taking the SATs is necessary to get into college, then knowing who the Speaker of the House is doesn't seem like that tall of an order. Images: Getty Images (3)