J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

The Arizona Citizenship Test

Last month the Arizona legislature voted to require high-school students in the state to pass a civics test before graduating—its questions taken from the citizenship test given to immigrants hoping to become citizens.

As Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post reported:
Immigrants are given 100 questions to learn and then, during an interview with a U.S. official, must answer 10 of them without knowing in advance which ones they will be. They must get six right to pass.

The Arizona law calls for students to take a test with all 100 questions in the citizenship question pool—and get at least 60 of them correct.
It strikes me that there are some questionable aspects to this approach.

The Immigration Service encourages people to memorize the questions and the acceptable answers without necessarily studying the concepts behind them. Indeed, the agency even says applicants should focus on the official answers and not think more deeply: “Although USCIS is aware that there may be additional correct answers to the 100 civics questions, applicants are encouraged to respond to the civics questions using the answers provided below.”

Thus, the question “What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?” must be answered “checks and balances” or “separation of powers”—which are actually two separate and somewhat contradictory concepts. An immigrant or student can’t answer with “the Second Amendment” or “regular elections” or “the notion of what is ‘too powerful’ evolves along with society, and we’re clearly comfortable with a more powerful executive branch than the men at the Constitutional Convention imagined.”

Another aspect of the test that struck me is that, because it’s based on a national citizenship test, it has no content specific to being a citizen of Arizona. In that state judges are initially appointed and then stand for reelection, unlike in the federal system. Arizona has citizen referendums, unlike the national government. But the civics test won’t cover those details.

Likewise, the historical section of the test has little about Arizona. It‘s mentioned only as a state that borders Mexico, not a part of the U.S. of A. that Spanish explorers first visited in 1539, decades before English colonists reached the continent. The acceptable answers list the Mexican-American War among the country’s nineteenth-century wars, but not how that’s the way the country obtained most of Arizona. The questions mention the Louisiana Purchase but not the Gadsden Purchase. And of course Arizona contains territories of the Navajo and Hopi nations with their own governments and ideas of civic structure.

Ironically, the same legislature that’s deferring to the federal Immigration Service on defining civics for its high-school graduates has been demanding more power for the state on national immigration laws.

1 comment:

G. Lovely said...

The fact that AZ defaulted to the federal test just shows how politically divisive history can be, and how as soon as politics are involved one person's facts are another person's fallacies.

I'm reminded however of the epigram "The enemy of 'good' isn't 'bad', it's 'better'."

Sure there are many ways the test might be improved, but as Samuel Johnson purportedly observed, "It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." Who knows, some kid studying for the test just to pass might have their curiosity piqued and go looking for more.