Dakota students need more than Lady Gaga to graduate
If you don't know how many voting members are in the U.S. House of Representatives, or answers to numerous other questions asked of immigrants trying to become American citizens, then you may not get through high school in North Dakota.
The state's first lady has joined educators and lawmakers to unveil legislation that would require high school students to pass a 100-question civics test starting in 2016. Immigrants applying to become citizens must correctly answer six of 10 questions that are chosen at random from the same exam, which is given verbally.
"Ninety percent of new Americans pass it on their first try," first lady Betsy Dalrymple said. But she noted studies have shown that many students don't know that George Washington was the first U.S. president. "The goal is to know basic facts about our Republic."
Lawmakers will consider the bill when they reconvene in January. Similar efforts are also underway in South Dakota, Arizona, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Utah, according to Sam Stone, spokeswoman for the nonprofit pushing the effort, the Joe Foss Institute.
Stone said most teenagers can identify Lady Gaga or a judge on "American Idol." But only a disappointing few could name one of the nation's founding fathers or a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Kids have an amazing knowledge of pop culture. We just wish some of this critical information also is what's being absorbed by students," Stone said.
"We want this test to be a first step in the rebirth of civics education," she added. "The more young people know, the more they vote, engage in government and take responsibility about their future."
The questions on the citizenship test include simple civics: naming the current U.S. president (answer: Barack Obama), the number of voting members in the U.S. House (answer: 435), or the year the Constitution was written (answer: 1787).
There's also geography, such as naming the ocean bordering the nation's West Coast (the Pacific). And some history: Why does the American flag have 13 stripes? (That's the number of original colonies.) And the test even has tips for staying out of trouble with the Internal Revenue Service (the deadline for filing your federal income tax form is April 15).
The goal is to enact similar laws in all U.S. states by 2017, said Stone. That's when the Constitution turns 230 years old. Her Arizona-based organization is named after the late South Dakota governor who won the Congressional Medal of Honor during WWII.
The proposal wouldn't impose extra costs for schools because the questions are available on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security website, and individual schools would decide how to implement the test, said North Dakota School Superintendent Kirsten Baesler.
Critical thinking challenge: Why are immigrants more successful on the test than students?