THE NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: State civics test would require basic knowledge of U.S. before graduation

When U.S. citizens can’t answer man-on-the-street questions about the country they live in, it might make for great comedy on TV. But is it really a laughing matter?

Our country requires prospective citizens to pass a civics test before granting citizenship, but the fact is, many brand-new citizens know more about the basics of our country than those of us who have grown up here.

During the naturalization interview, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer will ask those wanting to be American citizens up to 10 questions from a list of 100. At least six questions must be answered correctly to pass the test. The USCIS reports that as of 2016, the overall national pass rate is 91 percent.

But Indiana Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) thinks most students coming out of our high schools would not be able to pass the test. He fears much of our current citizenry is virtually ignorant of such basic facts as the name of the first president of the United States, the number of senators in Congress, how long a president serves in office, the names of the two major political parties and how old citizens must be to vote.

Those are among the 100 questions on the civics test that Kruse would like to require Indiana high school students to pass in order to graduate. That’s why he authored Indiana Senate Bill 132, which the Senate Education and Career Development Committee approved by a 7-3 vote Wednesday, thus sending the bill to the floor of the full Senate.

“Americans’ lack of basic history and government knowledge is so poor, that man-on-the-street interviews with these kinds of questions have become regular comedy sketches on many TV programs,” said Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana this week. “However, in a self-governing republic, this is no laughing matter. Many people who cannot name from whom we declared our independence in 1776 are active voters.”

Clark testified in support of the bill before the Senate Education Committee, and has supported the proposal several times before. Kruse proposed the bill in 2015, but it was defeated by the full Senate. The House also considered the proposal that year, but didn’t take a vote in committee.

Some critics of the proposal say it is redundant to have students memorize facts when these facts are already presented through social studies and history courses. But we agree with the argument, that if civics is not tested, it is not taught.

“The teachers that teach government and civics classes in Indiana, they claim they cover these things and these kids know it,” Kruse said. “But when you give them the test, a lot of them get 10 out of 100 correct. I think we have a deficiency in government and civics knowledge in America today, and I think it’s getting worse.”

The Education Commission of the States reports that eight states require students to pass a civics test to graduate. Several other states give a civics test to high school students, but it is not a graduation requirement.

We understand the reluctance of opponents of the bill, including the Indiana Department of Education, to creating yet another test for students.

But Kruse argued during a committee meeting last week, that the test wouldn’t be that burdensome. He says it would take most students less than 30 minutes to complete the test, which students could start taking in the eighth grade.

The fact is, whatever is currently being done to teach civics in our schools doesn’t seem to stick. Shouldn’t we hold our current citizens to the same standards we ask of those seeking to become citizens for the first time? It shouldn’t be that difficult.