Teasing Out Freedom from Responsibility

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I have a new study coming out from the Goldwater Institute called Freedom from Responsibility: A Survey of Civic Knowledge Among Arizona High School Students. You dear reader get a special sneak-peak!

This study employs a straightforward methodology: we designed a telephone survey instrument to test civic knowledge based upon the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) exam items. The USCIS administers a test to all immigrants applying for citizenship and makes the questions public.

USCIS officials choose 10 questions out of the item bank of 100 questions and give them as a citizenship exam. In order to pass, the applicant for citizenship must answer six out of the 10 questions correctly. The questions are not multiple choice, instead requiring applicants to supply an answer. When they ask “Who wrote the Declaration of Independence” the applicant has to answer “Thomas Jefferson” in order to get the question correct. 

Recently, the USCIS had 6,000 citizenship applicants pilot a newer version of this test. The agency reported a 92.4 percent passing rate for the test among citizenship applicants on the first try. I did not expect Arizona high school students to do that well of course, given that those seeking citizenship have had the opportunity to prepare for the test. On the other hand, Arizona high school students have some advantages of their own: multiple courses in American history and social studies, hopefully exposure to American history outside of school, etc.

I randomly selected 10 of the USCIS questions and included them in a survey, curious to see how many high school students would pass the test required of immigrants.

civics1Here’s your free sample: One of the questions was “What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?” How many high school students attending public schools answered correctly?

“I don’t know” beat “the Bill of Rights” by almost a two to one margin, and 75% of students got the question wrong.

Notice also that 12% of Arizona students thought that the first ten amendments to the Constitution were called “The Constitution.”

Phoenix, we have a problem…

21 Responses to Teasing Out Freedom from Responsibility

  1. We have a problem. Hmmmm. Do we?

    Is the republic at risk if students don’t know the “name” assigned to constitutional rights? Isn’t that a rather arbitrary question and bit of information. Isn’t practical application of the knowledge more relevant? How extensive is the testing of their understanding of their rights? How much knowledge do seventeen year olds need in this respect.’

    What has been the historical record of just how much extensive civic knowledge the average American, and then the average voter, possesses and utilizes on a regular basis?

    These sort of questions and statistics are misleading and need to be extrapolated into long-term trends of practical application before we determine that “we are in trouble.”

  2. Matthewladner says:


    So it’s ok with you if kids go through multiple history and American government classes and 75% can’t identify the Bill of Rights?

  3. The Minnesota Kid says:

    Actually the answer to the question “Who wrote the Declaration of Independence” is not “Thomas Jefferson.” The correct answer would be “a subcommittee of representatives appointed by the Continental Congress that subsequently persuaded Thomas Jefferson to generate the first draft which, subsequently, was significantly revised by various members of the subcommittee (especially John Adams) as well as repeatedly amended by vote of the Continental Congress itself.” So, if you thought that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, then, Phoenix, it appears that we really, really have a problem.

    • allen says:

      The answer to the question in the test was Demi Moo…uh…Thomas Jefferson.

      My guess is that for the purposes of the test that’s an adequate answer if not entirely accurate or comprehensive.

      The real question though is why would citizenship applicants know the answer to that question when high school students don’t?

      The answer, in my impressively humble opinion, is that citizenship applicants are pursuing something they believe to be of considerable value that they know won’t simply fall into their laps. High school students, by contrast, see themselves as being driven to perform dreary, meaningless rituals for which they receive the widely-discounted high school diploma.

      I’d say both groups are acting in a manner commensurate with their perceptions of the value of their goals.

  4. Matthew,

    The question isn’t whether “that” is OK with me – as “that” is arbitrary knowledge which is not quantifiably significant. The question is whether that’s a valid indicator of a “problem” with the republic. Do students need to know all fifty states – and capitals – and dates of statehood – and the location of France on a blank map – and the list of countries who use the Euro – and the number and names of US counties that conduct abortion – and the cause of the Panic of 1837 – and …?

    If you can go ahead and extrapolate that trend into something meaningful – and that means moving beyond the “bumper sticker” comment made to me by a history teacher recently that “he who doesn’t know his history is destined to repeat it – then perhaps we can discuss what list of knowledge (terms, dates, names, battles, court cases, laws, etc.) you deem as the indispensable list that every citizen must know for the republic to survive.

  5. matthewladner says:


    You are of course correct-I am just using the test items and their answers. Don’t worry, there isn’t much chance that any of these kids missed the Declaration of Independence question because they insisted on giving Ben Franklin credit for editing.


    I think you are on to something…


    I’m not sure what knowledge is quantifiably significant, but the imparting of civic knowledge and values are generally understood to be a major justification for having a public school system.

  6. Of course, Matt.

    If you think there is any inclination in my arguments against the imparting of civic knowledge and values, you have sadly misread both comments.

  7. matthewladner says:


    I guess the NAEP people have taken a stab at this to some extent by making distinctions between “Below Basic,” “Basic,” “Proficient” and “Advanced” for the NAEP history test.

  8. Well, Matt, NAEP opens up a whole new are of dispute – how much significance do you place on a standardized test that is voluntary, that students are asked to give up class time to take (which they would have to make up later), that they are told has no impact on their grades, that is not publicly promoted in any way, that half the students who take it don’t even finish the writing portion ….?

    Just how valid of an indicator is that?

  9. allen says:

    In that absence of anything better, more valid then nothing?

  10. Matthewladner says:


    Say what you will about the tenets of testing nihilism, it’s definitely an ethos!

  11. Patrick says:


    What kind of test would you design that would test a student’s practical application of knowledge that doesn’t run into the same design problems you’ve highlighted with other tests?

  12. Not sure, Patrick. However, that doesn’t invalidate my criticism of current tests.

    However, in his book “The Global Achievement Gap,” Tony Wagner offers some intriguing information on the new Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) which is “an open-ended, ninety-minute performance assessment in which students have to demonstrate their reasoning, problem-solving, and writing skills while attempting to solve a real-world problem.” From the description of this test and system, it seems like a great development in assessment, and its components should become more standard even in the classroom. It’s worth more discussion. What do you think?

  13. Patrick says:

    You are right, but I wasn’t attempting to invalidate your criticism, only understand it better. From what I am able to gather you are against testing how much information a student has memorized and I think this too can be problematic.

    I think demonstrating reasoning, problem solving and writing skills are wonderful. So is attempting to use knowledge to solve a real-world problem. I probably would have done a lot better in school if this is what we were tested on – especially in classes that graded my work based on spelling.

    But I believe that none of this can happen unless the student has some understanding of factual information and data on the given subject. Knowledge is shaped from the information we have available. Without information we cannot reason and cannot have knowledge or wisdom.

    Without knowing the periodic table how can I create more complex compounds?

    Without understanding the division of a circle how can I discover the size and angles of various shapes?

    Knowing the facts of history and civics are important if the goal is to have reasoned individuals who are to shape the future of society (for good or bad…and Matt is right, many people have used this as an excuse to have a system of public education).

    So I would assume that anyone teaching problem solving and reasoning skills would first have to provide the facts and information to the student. I would conclude that a proper education would have to have some degree of both reasoning and factual memorization.

    Finally, without providing information would we really be teaching and testing students reasoning and problem solving skills or merely teaching students what to think?

  14. I absolutely agree, Patrick. In fact, I am a proponent of the work by people like Dan Willingham at the Core Knowledge blog/group that focuses on prior knowledge as an integral component of true learning. In my own classes, the acquisition of that knowledge – facts, names, stats, terms, dates, etc. – is fundamental to my class. Students in my classes regularly note how our goal is “becoming people on whom nothing is lost.” The amount of core knowledge that I require of and encourage in my students is far beyond the state and local standards – perhaps that’s why my classes have a 93% pass rate on the AP Exam.

    That said, my initial criticism is people cherry picking statistics of arbitrarily tested knowledge to criticize the public education system as flawed, or failing. Any time I hear a statistic like “52% of American teenagers can’t find Iraq on a map,” I immediately challenge the statement and its relevance – what kind of map? regional or world? are the names on it? does that matter? do they have an understanding of its geopolitical significance? can they argue the US policy? does its proximity being west or east of Iran matter?

    In my classes, these issues matter – and core knowledge contributes. But many informed students might miss arbitrary questions on dates and names and still be knowledgeable voters. I’m not against amassing as much of this knowledge as possible. I am against using any of this info mentioned above to draw a conclusion that “we have a problem.”

  15. Patrick says:

    If 52% of kids can’t find Iraq on a map I would reason that this is a problem, given the fact that the country of Iraq has been on the headlines frequently for 6 straight years. This is a current event, if schools can’t figure out how to get this into a lesson to teach kids modern history, understand current news and world geography at the same time, I think there is some sort of a problem.

    If 52% of students couldn’t tell me what the 7th amendment was, I wouldn’t find that to be that much of a problem. But if kids can’t identify the first 10 amendments as the Bill of Rights there is some problem somewhere. Likewise, knowing that The Right to Trial by Jury is a constitutional right is more important than knowing what number it is. Do students know this? Something like Matt’s survey would help us find out.

    Additionally I don’t think Matt cherry picked questions and that does not seem to be arbitrary or difficult but on the level of “who was the first president of the United States?”

    Finally, without testing how much students know we wouldn’t know how much they learned (maybe that is tautological to say). If we can’t test students on a broad scale, like Matt has done, why on earth do we bother to do it for a single classroom? Should we just trust teachers and schools when they say they have taught students something?

    Many of these tests don’t come to the conclusion that education may not be adequately teaching students because they are designed to show that schools fail – many come to this conclusion because schools are in fact failing. At this point, I’m willing to bet that schools even fail to teach proper reasoning and analytical skills and I would eagerly await someone to conduct a test to find this out.

  16. […] part one of Freedom From […]

  17. […] were four times more likely to pass. “Still pathetic,” he writes. Here’s part one of Freedom From Responsibility. Published in […]

  18. […] in June, the Goldwater Institute gave a version of the United States Citizenship Test to Arizona high school students. Only 3.5 percent of students got 6 or more questions correct, […]

  19. […] Institute and regular blogger at Jay Greene and the United Cherry Pickers, was madly blogging [see here and here] about the civic ignorance of Oklahoma high school […]

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