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


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