Should American students have to take the U.S. Citizenship Test in order to graduate from high school?

During her State of the State address, Governor Noem stated that high school students should have to pass the United States citizenship test in order to graduate high school. Questions comprising the test cover straightforward facts of American history; the citizenship test only assesses the ability to recall information. Many other states, including our neighbor North Dakota, also give this test as a state wide requirement. The test has been contested in all of the states it has been proposed and approved, with students, teachers, parents, and administrators finding themselves on different sides.

Noem’s State Address can be found at

The following responses are paraphrased from discussions the author had with South Dakota high school students and educational professionals, as well as teachers both inside and outside the state.

Yes, students should take the test.

  1. If immigrants have to do it, then American students should have to as well.
  2. I do not see this as a negative. It makes sense for students to know their government if they are going to be active participants.
  3. Students need to know these facts in order to participate in American government.

No, students should not need to take the test.

  1. Classroom mandates would be better, similar to Illinois. The current political environment happened on the watch of social studies educators; it is up to tour group to make it better. Civics education and social studies, should be stressed more in schools, not just on a standardized test.
  2. Service learning projects would be better.
  3. It’s a complete waste of time because classroom standards are already covering this. It is just another hoop to jump through.
  4. The test only covers recall skills, therefore it is not applicable for practical skills needed by citizens.
  5. We need to end the era of high stakes testing. We test them over recall too much and need to assess over critical thinking skills.
  6. The majority of the questions have a very low Depth of Knowledge (DOK) requirement. If you could find a breakdown of the DOK for the civics test questions showing this, you could make the argument to colleagues that the test does not align with the rigor of the courses, making it an invalid measure.

Governor Noem and those who agreed with the U.S. Citizenship Test operate under a misconception, which is more standardized testing will improve knowledge or skills of high school students. The opinions in the “yes” camp value civics education in schools, but their method would not increase the total knowledge or skills of high school students. Those who believe the test would not benefit also want students to have a strong background in civics, but their alternative would be to encourage schools to promote critical thinking in their social studies classes.

For her second mistake, in the same State address, Noem called on schools to create more opportunities for students to participate in internships and real life activities, but left out of her proposal was humanities and liberal arts classes. Noem continued to elaborate on how tech schools need to have more of a relationship with schools, and high school students need to be given more real challenges and opportunities to learn skills. Modern educators should applaud these points, but she makes the same tragic mistakes the public and many educators make; her line of thinking is to only push technical subjects to provide opportunities for real world experiences. The Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) movement is an example of pushing technical education, and although it is beneficial, proponents of it forget that the humanities are the most applicable subjects to real life. Students miss the momentous opportunity to practice the skills they learn in their social studies classes in the real world.

During her State address, Noem contradicted herself when it comes to education. She desires more real world experience for students, but she also wants students to take a standardized test over the most important learning they will need, their learning of citizenship. Social studies teachers should heed this call; seek more ways for your students to participate in local politics, help their community, and contribute in the conversations and debates that will shape our state and country for the next few generations. Provide service learning projects and lessons that track the growth of student skill mastery.

Governor Noem’s recipe for civics success, and the standing ovation she received from South Dakota’s legislature, demonstrate the ongoing belief that students taking standardized tests will cure our current contentious and uneducated political environment. The actually reality is much more complicated, but something simple can be deduced; students will not remember most information that they learned in order to pass a recall/memorization test. Although I believe the answer to making our democracy stronger will always be better education, the regurgitation of historical facts should not be the goals of American citizens, and those who lead our government should not be promoting it.

Alternatives to Governor Noem’s suggestion

  1. School administrators should provide time for social studies teachers to come together and collaborate on ideas that will promote critical thinking in their respective social studies courses.
  2. School administration could contract their best social studies teachers and task them with organizing and creating department goals that would be vertically aligned between their secondary grades (6-12). This person could still teach, but would receive 2-3 hours a day to reflect on best practices, similar to a department head or curriculum developer.
  3. Social studies teachers should connect with professionals in their community, such as librarians, museum directors/staff, government analysts/experts, and local historians. Connect with these people and create projects, curriculums, and skill assessments that can be tested in applicable situations.
  4. Social studies teachers need to give less memorization and recall assessments and focus their time on service learning projects and activities that promote critical thinking and the student obtainment of skills.
  5. South Dakota does not have a National Council for the Social Studies. College administration, professors, secondary school administration, and senior social studies teacher should be organizing one.

Organization and institutions that promote critical thinking in social studies education

  1. Stanford History Education Group
  2. CK-12 Foundation (History Flexbook)
  3. Technology & Innovation in Education (TIE) (Based in Rapid City, South Dakota)
  4. History Forge
  5. Newsela
  6. Library of Congress (Teaching with Primary Sources)
  7. National Archives (Teaching with Documents)

Resources about citizenship tests and civics courses around the United States


What is history good for?

Website Article:


The author’s argument: History curriculum should be adapted to the discussions that the generally public are currently working through. History teaching should always make an attempt to connect to the personalities of students and their perspectives.


My quick assessment: Well written piece by Lisa Gilbert who has a unique view and experience with teaching history. I would have enjoyed more insight on how teachers can connect different ideas to standards and share additional information on how she assesses students.


My rational:


Which is more important, students being able to recall a series of names and dates, or students being able to make personal connections with history and historical arguments? Dr. Lisa Gilbert believes that students should be able to do the latter and wrote about broadening historical understanding at the middle school level in her article ‘To Chart A Course” published by the American Historical Association. She has taught at multiple levels of academia, currently working for the College of Education at the University of Missouri-Columbia and worked at museums in the United States and abroad. Gilbert has done an excellent job of showing how students can broaden their view on the use of history and how academic, public, and popular institutions of history can further collaborate. Gilbert explains how her connection with museum curation helped understand that “…people found value in the ways they interacted with history in spaces beyond school-experiences like visiting historic sites, watching films set in historical time periods, and sharing family stories.” These beliefs fit into the philosophy of a public historian, a professional that studies how history impacts people outside of academia. Gilbert has touched on one of the most neglected points in history classrooms in both secondary education and higher academia; history teachers do not spend enough time on how interpretation of history matters. Gilbert’s methods can be commended for the following reasons: connection to current affairs, use of multiple sources to build curriculum, and the personal connections students make to history.

First, Gilbert connects responsible social studies teaching with connecting history to current affairs. This is a refreshing purpose for a history classroom. All social studies teachers should do their utmost to demonstrate how the past affects the present. For example, Gilbert describes how an 8th grade class took a Greco-Roman history survey course and she took the courses curriculum and used it to show students that modern day white supremacist groups use Greco-Roman imagery to support their movements. This is a good example of a teacher considering critical thinking and shows students that even ancient history has deep connections to what is happening today.

Second, Gilbert ensures students learn from multiple perspectives by utilizing numerous resources. For instance, Gilbert used Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s academic article “We Condone It by Our Silence: Confronting Classics’ Complicity in White Supremacy,” the gaming platform Ryse: Son of Rome, and Ben Davi’s blog post “The New White Nationalism’s Sloppy Use of Art History, Decoded. These sources are diverse and Gilbert combined modern day resources like video game trailers with more traditional historical analysis such as a deep analytical review of classic work. Students would be enticed by new sources, especially modern ones like video games, and then be further introduced into the field by exploring more rigorous texts.

Third, students make personal connections to historical learning. Gilbert shared a touching story of a “Jewish student who had relatives who were murdered in concentration camps….” when describing how her students made connections with their lives. It is moments like this that demonstrate how a social studies classroom can be a safe place to discuss the real problems and joys of our society. Students can discuss the tragic topics that may have befallen their families or themselves and can see how these issues connect with wider problems across the United States or world. These memories last longer than the historical knowledge that students gain and will encourage them to use history to understand other issues in society.

Gilbert’s pedagogy and adaption of the curriculum should be commended, but there may be some who see the untraditional methods as not being valuable at best, or dangerous at worst. Many traditionalists will argue that memorizing the facts and figures of history will best serve students in the future. Some critics may also argue that in order to make deep insights into historical perspectives, one must first dedicate themselves to memorizing the plethora of dates and facts. Unfortunately for the traditionalists, this thinking is exactly why most students, and American citizens, do not like learning about their history. History is a malleable creation, something that people invented to satisfy a primal need of understanding their surroundings. There always has been and always will be interpretations of history and it should be the job of social studies educators to provide students with the tools and experiences to critically evaluate their past and present. Gilbert has done an excellent job of combining the public historian sphere with secondary education and her model should be shared with as many educators as soon as possible.