Development & Education

An Oregon high school class creates an alternate test for US citizenship

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Credit: Robert Galbraith/Reuters
Anais Arias-Aragon poses for pictures with her certificate after receiving her US citizenship during a ceremony in San Francisco on Jan. 30, 2013.

As part of a series about citizenship this week, we asked you to answer a few questions from the US citizenship test.

So far, about 2,400 of you have responded and most have passed with an average score of 78.5 percent. Immigrants need to answer six of 10 questions correctly and demonstrate that they can read, write and speak in English to pass the citizenship test. About 93 percent of you knew, “What is one promise you make when you become a United States citizen?” and 95 percent percent of you could name the Speaker of the House. Only 63 and 64 percent of you knew how long US Representatives and Senators serve their terms.

Michael Gwaltney
Credit: Courtesy of Michael Gwaltney
Michael Gwaltney is 11th grade teacher at Oregon Episcipol School in Portland. He spends his days trying to explain how our government can be at such an impasse.
Michael Gwaltney is an 11th grade history teacher at the Oregon Episcopal School in Portland. He’s been engaging his students with American civics, including what the shutdown should teach us all about our democracy. Last week, the 11th graders in his school created their own version of the citizenship test.

“We thought one of the problems with the citizenship was that the questions are Google-able,” Gwaltney said. “We wanted people to interpret and make answers more meaningful.”

Knowing names and dates, the students thought, were the least important things about being a citizen. So they set out on a rigorous process to write new questions focusing on what they thought was important about citizenship. Leaving aside the issue of assessing English-language learners fairly, they abandoned the multiple-choice format.

Each of the 79 students wrote three questions, sample answers and resources for prospective citizens to study. Then a panel of students talked through each question and narrowed it down to the ones they thought were best. Here are 12 of the questions that made it through all the steps:

  1. What are the essential American values reflected in the Constitution?
  2. Why was the absence of religion in the original constitution important?
  3. “The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution,” John Adams wrote in 1818. Explain the meaning and value of this statement in two or three paragraphs.
  4. If you had been at the Constitutional Convention, what one thing would you change about the Constitution?
  5. Why is it important to have a checks and balances system in the original form of the government, and why is it important for the constitution to put this system into place?
  6. Was the way Native Americans were treated by the 13 colonies and then the United States representative of American ideals? Explain.
  7. Thomas Jefferson said in his Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal”, yet slavery was not officially abolished until 1863 when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, confirmed by the 13th Amendment in 1865. Using your knowledge of history, explain why the Americans were not able to live up to Jefferson's statement until much later.
  8. Are factions inevitable, as stated by James Madison in Federalist Paper 10, and if so, how should the citizens of the United States navigate the factions that develop? Are they the best vehicle through which citizens to express their personal opinions?
  9. Over time, the Supreme Court has become more and more powerful, based on the Marshall Court's original assertion of "judicial review." Is this consistent with the American ideal of democracy?
  10. Is it better for the federal government to have more power, or the states? Why?
  11. Why do Americans reject the idea of monarchy? Why are Americans committed to democracy?
  12. Which is preferable in a democracy, a multiple party system or single party system? Use examples from American history in your answer.

Gwaltney says that the students were clear that this is not just about passing a test but creating the kinds of questions every American should be able to address. How would you answer these questions? Pick one and let us know in comments.

If you like his teaching style, Gwaltney will also be taking over a rotating Twitter account of teachers around the world next week. Follow @PRISchoolYear to know more about how his students learn American history and civics.

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