Americans don’t fare that well when it comes to understanding how their government works.
For example, 35 percent of Americans couldn’t name a single branch of the U.S. government and 20 percent thought a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for reconsideration.
That's according to a survey released last week by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
“You look at survey after survey and Americans really don’t know basic things,” said Sam Stone, campaign manager for the Civics Education Initiative.
So what's the solution? Stone and his group are campaigning in Missouri and six other states for legislation that requires students pass or prove they have a mastery of the concepts on the U.S. citizenship test before they earn a high school diploma or GED.
“We consider this the basic knowledge that anybody needs to start to understand their government and grow in their civic life,” Stone said.
The campaign is a response in part, said Stone, to the national push for schools to focus more on STEM education, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“STEM is absolutely necessary, especially in today’s technologically driven society,” Stone said. “But if you don’t how our government works, it’s very, very easy for the systems of government to be manipulated.”
Stone said the idea isn’t to add another high stakes exam to the list of student assessments in Missouri and the rest of the nation. Rather, he said, the goal would be for students to take the citizenship test as many times as needed and to allow schools to find alternate ways for administering the exam.
“We want as much flexibility as possible for students, teachers and parents to decide the best way to implement it,” Stone said.
Meanwhile, working groups are in the process of reexamining education standards in Missouri after Gov. Jay Nixon signed a bill to begin moving the state away from Common Core State Standards. Those standards apply only to math and English, but the law forming the committees also applies to science and social studies.
“The components of what it means to be an active citizen in the United States and Missouri is already part of what we do,” said Jessica Vehlewald, director of professional learning for the Rockwood School District.
Vehlewald is part of the committee charged with redrawing social studies education standards for Missouri’s high school students.
“In most classes in the state of Missouri, teachers are going even deeper,” Vehlewald said. “The level of learning they ask students to reach as compared to the citizenship test is deeper. That’s something to keep in mind.”
As it stands, students in Missouri are required to take a course and pass an exam covering the U.S. Constitution, Missouri Constitution and American history. Individual school districts, however, can develop the test students are required to take and what constitutes a passing score.
Former state Rep. Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City, is co-chair of the Missouri Civics Education Initiative. Other co-chairs include former Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat; former state Sen. Glen Klippenstein, R-Maysville; and Maxine Clark, founder of the St. Louis-based Build-A-Bear.
He said the group isn’t out to make state education standards more complex. Instead, Talboy said, the idea is to set a baseline for civics education across the state.
“If we are going to say, ‘if you want to be a U.S. citizen, you have to pass this test,’ then we ought to be able to do this ourselves,” Talboy said.
Talboy also underscored the bipartisan nature of the effort, adding that he's tried to get a sense of whether Missouri lawmakers would get behind the idea. So far, he said all the feedback has been positive.
“This is something that makes sense to all of us,” said Talboy, who now works as director of government affairs for the engineering firm Burns MCDonnell. “And I think that makes it fairly easy to sell.”
Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said backers of the initiative won’t find much resistance when it comes to ramping up students’ understand of basic civics. But, Robertson said, convincing lawmakers to require students to take another exam could be a stumbling block.
“I think hardly anybody would disagree with the aspiration to do this,” Robertson said. “But the implementation of it, requiring another standardize test statewide, that’s where there will be some objections.”
As for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s take on the initiative, it only released this statement: “The department agrees that civics education is critical.”
Curious how well you'd do taking the citizenship exam? Go here to take a practice quiz.