• What did Martin Luther King Jr. do?
• During the Cold War, what was the main concern of the United States?
• What movement tried to end racial discrimination?
• Who was president during the Great Depression and World War II?
• Name one American Indian tribe.
• Who did the United States fight during World War II?
The United States is a nation of immigrants. Yet many Americans today could not qualify for legal status based on a requirement that citizenship applicants pass a civics test covering important government and U.S. history topics.
There are 100 questions on the naturalization test. During the interview process, applicants are asked up to 10 and must be able to answer at least six correctly. The six above are from the history portion of the test.
Lincoln Park Strategies conducted a poll for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation on Americans’ knowledge of the questions on the test. It involved 41,000 interviews among adults nationwide. The results indicate far too many people could not answer the six questions above.
Only 34 percent of South Carolina residents earned a passing grade on history questions from the citizenship test. Three percent in the state scored an A; 7 percent received a B; 10 percent a C; and 14 percent a D on the 20-question survey.
And South Carolina is not at the bottom of the list. In the lowest-performing state, Louisiana, a mere 27 percent were able to pass. West Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Kentucky all scored worse than the Palmetto State.
Only in Vermont could a majority (53 percent) pass the test to become a U.S. citizen. The next best states were Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana and Virginia.
Nationally, only four in 10 Americans passed the exam. Even more disturbing, only 27 percent – less than three in 10 people -- of those under the age of 45 nationally were able to demonstrate a basic understanding of American history.
“Unfortunately, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has validated what studies have shown for a century: Americans don’t possess the history knowledge they need to be informed and engaged citizens,” foundation President Arthur Levine said.
“American history education is not working, as students are asked to memorize dates, events and leaders, which the poll results shows are not retained in adulthood,” Levine said. “Based on our research, this is not an issue of whether high school history teachers are adequately prepared or whether kids study American history in school. The answer to both questions is yes. This is an issue of how we teach American history.”
A new approach is needed, Levine said. “This requires a fundamental change in how American history is taught and learned to make it relevant to our students lives, captivating, and inclusive to all Americans.”
The foundation has launched a national initiative to make the fundamental change. It will provide high school students with an interactive digital platform intended to make American history more interesting and appreciated by all learners.
The Woodrow Wilson American History Initiative will offer experiential learning opportunities such as digital games, videos and graphic novels. Building on the foundation’s successful HistoryQuest Fellowship professional development program for social students and civics teachers, the initiative will also provide resources and learning opportunities for K-12 history teachers to improve their instructional practice.
On this Presidents Day, when we celebrate the nation’s leaders throughout its 243-year history, it’s safe to say the initiative is sorely needed. Expanding knowledge of American history is a national priority.