Sal Esquivel was watching TV one night when he saw a bunch of people interviewed on the street about civics. He was appalled by what he heard.
"They asked this one lady -- she was probably 30 -- who was president during World War I," he recalled. "She said, 'George Washington.'"
Esquivel is in a position to try to do something about this. He's a member of the Oregon House, where he's introduced legislation to require high school students to pass the same citizenship exam taken by naturalized immigrants.
North Dakota and Arizona have already made passage of citizenship exam a requirement for high school graduation. Similar bills are pending in 19 states, according to the Joe Foss Institute, an Arizona-based educational organization promoting the idea.
"It definitely has legs," said Frank Riggs, president of the institute. "It's taken on a little bit of life on its own and has grown organically across the country."
The appeal of the idea is obvious. No one seems happy with the state of civic education in this country. And, requiring high school students to know at least as much about U.S. politics, history and geography as foreign-born citizens can seem like a no-brainer.
"It's a little bit embarrassing how easy it is to go from one end of K-12 public schooling and come out the other end and just not know the first thing about history and citizenship," said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank in Washington.
But critics of the citizenship test requirement say that while its backers have identified the right problem -- the sorry state of civics education in this country -- they've come up with the wrong solution.
"Kids would pass, largely," said Peter Levine, a professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tufts University. "Then I worry that states would actually cut the civics classes."
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed the American Civics Act into law in February. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)
The citizenship test is made up of multiple choice questions. (Sample tests are online.) Most of the questions seem pretty basic -- how many justices sit on the Supreme Court, for instance, or what is the capital of the United States. Some reach "who's buried in Grant's Tomb" levels of obviousness: The correct answer to "What happened at the Constitutional Convention," for example, is "The Constitution was written."
"If we've got this rich, robust civic education going on, why are people hard-pressed to pass this simple exam?" Pondiscio asked. "It's just inexcusable not to know this stuff."
But Levine and others argue one more standardized test won't lead to a better-informed citizenry. Preparation for the test would mainly consist of rote memorization and the test itself "sends a signal that civics is a bunch of unconnected trivia," Levine argued.
Levine noted that most states require at least a semester's work on government or civics, but such requirements don't help meet Common Core or No Child Left Behind mandates. Civics therefore could lose out. "If we define an acceptable level of civic knowledge as passing the U.S. citizenship test, then students will be able to prepare for it in a couple of days," he said. "If that's all they need, why continue to require a whole semester-long course?"
He was part of a panel that crafted standards for civics education along a Common Core-style model. One of the big problems with civics education, he suggests, is that legislators micromanage content, with various states requiring anything from knowledge of the explorer Leif Ericson to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Students would be better served by improved civics instruction, with their comprehension measured on an ongoing basis, said Ted McConnell, executive director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, which promotes civics learning.
"In this era of assessment and accountability, it's a sad fact that only nine states have meaningful assessment in this area," he said. "There are 10 states that have absolutely no requirement that you take a civics or government course."
States such as Illinois, Tennessee and California have recently taken steps in the right direction, McConnell said, concentrating their efforts on improved instruction rather than mastery of a set of dry facts.
But supporters of the citizenship test model note that there's nothing about the requirement that precludes greater classroom attention. The reason the test seems simple to many people is because they have already been steeped in social studies. Making sure high school graduates possess such knowledge is the whole point.
"I'm also sponsoring a bill that will teach civics in school," said Esquivel, the Oregon state representative. "Not only do I want students to take the exam, I want them to take it as part of a course."