A recent poll by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation found that only 36 percent of Americans can pass a multiple choice test consisting of items from the U.S. citizenship test. That’s one in three people who are clueless about the history of the country in which they were born.
To become a naturalized U.S. citizen, immigrants must pass the naturalization test. At a naturalization interview, they are required to answer questions about their application and background — and they take an English and civics test. The actual civics test is not a multiple choice test. During the naturalization interview, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer will ask the applicant up to 10 questions from the list of 100 questions in English. They must answer correctly six of the 10 questions to pass the civics test, according to the USCIS website.
The Woodrow Wilson Foundation pulled 20 questions from the test and offered them in multiple choice form to poll takers. Even with the correct answer as an option, only 36 percent could pass.
The results in Arkansas were even worse. Foundation findings rank the state 47th in the country, claiming only 30 percent would pass the citizenship test based on survey findings.
Barclay Key, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, told KATV Channel: “We need to prioritize teaching history. And right now, the only priority the state has is passing some foolish standardized test. We don’t test for history. We test for science, we test for reading, we test for math.”
Indeed. I witnessed this when I returned to college to earn a second degree a few years ago. I was alarmed by how little traditional-age students knew about civics and current events. I’ve also heard from parents who have supplemented their children’s educations with trips to historic sites in the country because the children were not learning about them in public schools.
The foundation said the poll shows that traditional methods of teaching American history—memorization of dates, names and events—have not been effective. That is apparent, but what are we going to do about it?
The foundation has announced a new program designed to change the way history is taught and learned. Intended to make American history more engaging for all learners, the WW American History Initiative will include an interactive digital platform geared toward high school students. The platform will give learners new ways to immerse themselves in history, especially in ways that show the relationships between the past, the present, and the future.
“The platform will offer experiential learning opportunities such as digital games, videos, and graphic novels, all driven by cutting-edge research in cognitive learning,” the foundation website said. “This effort builds on the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s successful HistoryQuest Fellowship professional development program, and will also provide resources and learning opportunities for K–12 history teachers to improve their instructional practice.”
Hopefully, these study results will urge more Americans to pay attention and become engaged in their nation’s history. It is sad that we expect immigrants who transition here legally to know historical material that our own citizens aren’t taught or don’t bother to learn. Also, most immigrants are bilingual and some speak more than two languages. Americans typically don’t speak their own language well.
We can and must do better. The quiz is available at https://woodrow.org/americanhistory/. Check it out. I passed with 85 percent (missed three out of 20, due to getting presidents out of chronological order). You can bet I am dusting off my history books.
Shea Wilson is the former managing editor of the El Dorado News-Times. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com @sheawilson7.