President Donald Trump wants legal immigrants to pass a civics exam before they’re allowed to enter the country — but many natural-born Americans may struggle with such a test.
Trump proposed the new civics-test requirement Thursday as part of a sweeping overhaul to America’s legal immigration system, which he wants to turn into a merit-based system. He outlined the proposal in a Rose Garden speech.
Typically, people have to pass tests about American history only when they are applying for citizenship.
“To promote integration, assimilation and national unity, future immigrants will be required to learn English and to pass a civics exam prior to admission,” he said.
Typically, people have to pass tests about American history only when they are applying for citizenship. This proposal would be a radical extra step for those “legal aliens” who want to live in the U.S., but are not U.S. citizens.
To become a U.S. citizen, immigrants must pass an English test and a written test that covers American history and how the government works. A practice test from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services includes questions like why the American flag has 13 stripes, the location of the country’s capital, and who becomes president if the president and vice president are unable to serve.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the civics test Trump wants to give legal immigrants entering the country is the same one people take to become citizens. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment for details on the civics exams.
What’s more, the exam’s inclusion in the immigration proposal, meant to emphasize the admission of highly-skilled workers, is a reminder of the weaknesses in civic education domestically.
Just 23% of eighth graders were considered proficient in their civic knowledge in a national test of eighth graders.
Just 23% of eighth graders were considered proficient in their civic knowledge in a 2014 national test of eighth graders administered by a center within the U.S. Department of Education. The average score on the test was between “basic” and “proficient;” it’s edged up slightly since the first test in 1998.
To achieve a basic score, students must be able to “define government, constitution, the rule of law, and politics. They’re also expected to have “some understanding of competing ideas about purposes of government, and they should be able to describe advantages of limited government.”
To be considered “advanced” in civics, students “should have a clear understanding of issues in which democratic values are in conflict and of past efforts to address the discrepancies between American ideals and reality.”
Case in point: Just under half of people knew that Justice John Roberts was the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, according to a recent survey of 1,000 people from the American Bar Association. In another question, less than two-thirds knew jury duty was a responsibility reserved only for American citizens.
Just under half of people knew that Justice John Roberts was the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The results clearly show that we have more work to do,” ABA president Bob Carlson said of the survey results.
Right now, students in all 50 states must take civics or social studies courses in order to graduate from high school, but the amount of course work varies, according to the Education Commission of the States, an organization tracking various state educational requirements.
Whatever the case, civics educations proponents say it’s critical that Americans understands the way government works — especially in an era of “fake news,” “alternative facts” and heated debates on the country’s future.
More than half — 52% — of school administrators said their schools spent too little time teaching civics, according to a 2018 poll conducted by the Education Week Research Center. The same poll said educators spent a median of six hours a month on civics.
Local school districts have to juggle civics with subjects required for standardized tests, like reading and writing and arithmetic. Teachers spent three hours a week teaching history and social studies in first through sixth graders in the 1999-2000 school year, but 2.6 hours in 2003-2004, according to a 2018 report issued through the Brookings Institution.
In Rhode Island, the quality of civics education is allegedly so lacking that students took their state to court. Students of all ages are suing the state in federal court, arguing the state’s failure to teach substantial civics education is depriving them of a “meaningful opportunity to obtain an education adequate to prepare them to be capable citizens.”
The state is asking a judge to dismiss the case, court papers show. Rhode Island does have standards on civic education, its lawyers for the state wrote.
School systems with high quality civics courses tend to more be affluent and whiter as a whole, said Elizabeth Matto, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Youth Political Participation at the Rutgers University Eagleton Institute of Politics.
A focus on civics is important in any context, whether for screening immigrants or high school students, she said. “American democracy’s vitality, its future, is based considerably on our ability to govern ourselves,” she said.
However, merely answering enough civics questions correctly may not be enough to inspire people to be engaged citizens, she noted.
Still, Matto thinks civics education is coming back. “We are in the midst of a generational shift where young adults are hungry for civic education and asking for one,” she said.
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