Civics test a no-brainer

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick
photo House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick

State Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, thinks folks ought to be able to pass a basic civics test before they graduate from high school.

He's right.

The test is composed of the same questions legal immigrants are asked to pass in order to become United States citizens. If natural born U.S. citizens don't know the very basics about their government, history and geography, how can we ask those who want to come to the country legally to know those things?

McCormick's bill filed for the upcoming session of the state legislature -- sponsored in the state Senate by Majority Leader Mark Norris -- would mandate that, starting Jan. 1, 2016, "a student shall pass a civics test composed of the one hundred (100) questions that are set forth within the civics test administered by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to persons seeking to become naturalized citizens."

For students to pass the written test, they would only have to get what is considered a failing grade in most school systems -- 60 percent. And you can take the test as many times as you need to in order to pass it. But you must pass it in order to get a high school diploma.

The 60 percent threshold is the same score required on the naturalization test, where only 10 questions are posed and which has better than a 97 percent passage rate.

Any opposition to the bill -- and you can be sure there will be some -- should be interesting to hear.

One possibility that might be posed is the inordinate amount of tests students already must take. But some of the answers to the questions should have been put to memory by students by the end of elementary school and the majority of them by the end of middle school. Indeed, most students should be able to achieve 60 percent on the test by the end of middle school.

But we've all seen what passes for the lack of such knowledge today. Former "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno used to make a habit of it in his "Jaywalking" segments. The following are actual questions and answers:

Q. "What general led our troops in the battle for independence?"

A. "Churchill?"

Q. "What is the name of our national anthem?"

A. "I don't know at this time."

Q. "What year did we get our independence?"

A. (with confidence) "1922."

Q. "What happened on the 4th of July?"

A. "I have no clue."

The above questions, though stated slightly differently, are among the 100 students must answer in order to pass the naturalization test. And they are given a study sheet with all 100 questions and answers, some with numerous correct answers.

The harder ones ask "What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?," "What does the Constitution do?" and "How many amendments does the Constitution have?" But many are much easier, such as "What is the name of the president of the United States now?," "What is the capital of your state?" and "Name the U.S. war between the North and the South."

And, remember, students only have to score 60 percent.

But a national survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania in September found that only 36 percent of respondents could name all three branches of the U.S. government, and 35 percent could not name one branch.

The students don't need a separate civics class to know the answers, though. Although such a class would be a boon to students, basic lessons or classes in history, geography and government should supply the answers to all 100 questions.

But, for some reason, the information is not being taught or retained.

Similar legislation to McCormick's bill is being considered, according to the Civics Education Initiative, by Arizona, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah.

Indeed, President Barack Obama might have found a twinge of support for his executive order in November offering amnesty to more than 4 million immigrants if he said students across the country would have to pass such a test before leaving high school. Those, of course, would include children born in the U.S. of illegal immigrant parents and children brought here by their illegal immigrant parents.

The test itself could be taken in 10 or 15 minutes by students who are taught and retain the information but an hour at the most.

Students who complete high school in Tennessee in recent years have been tested in the areas of math, science and English on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) exams. A new social studies assessment is being field tested in state public schools this year but will not affect students grades or be reported to them. Ideally, the information taught for the assessment should include much of what is on the basic civics test.

It's time students returned to having a basic knowledge about their country.