So you want to become a United States citizen and you come from a foreign land?

One of the prices you have to pay is you have to pass a citizenship test.

So you want to be a graduate of a Massachusetts high school?

One of the prices you should have to pay is to pass the same citizenship test.

Why, you ask?

Because you can't truly be ready to participate in the political process if you can't pass a basic exam on the history of our government and how it operates.

Naturalized citizens are required to do it. So should citizens lucky enough to have been born here.

A recent random test of 15 junior and seniors at a state university, which I've chosen not to name, reveals all. All 15 are US citizens. All graduated from public high schools in the Bay State. All are students in good standing with the university on the way to graduation.

Sadly, not one passed the test of 20 random questions selected from the 100 possibilities a new citizen might face if they were attempting to become a citizen.

Questions like, "What year was the Declaration of Independence adopted?"

Answers given included: 1875, 1806, 1870, 1876, the mid-1700s and 1786.

I'm not making it up. Nine of the 15 didn't know what year, though all said afterward, they knew it was July 4.

Which was a better percentage than the answers to the query: Who was President during World War I?

Two students each answered either Teddy Roosevelt or Lyndon B.

Johnson. One student each answered "FD Roosevelt," Richard Nixon and "Jimmi" Carter. The rest left it blank.

That's right, none of the 15 answered the question correctly.

Think that's bad?

When asked, "during the Cold War, what was the main concern of the U.S.?" one student answered, "the debt," one offered "opium," another said the "battle over the North and South," and only two answered communism.

The rest left it blank or offered nuclear war, which I chose to grade as half credit for because I was still hopeful some might pass. I was, of course, wrong about that hope.

And why, pray tell, is Susan B. Anthony famous?

Six didn't have a clue. One wrote she sewed the first American flag. The good news is the remaining eight got it right.

Not so the question: Who runs the executive branch of the federal government?

The one written guess was "republican" with no explanation, while six wrote "president" and eight left it blank.

Worse still were the answers to the questions "How many elected members are there in the House of Representatives?" and "We elect a U.S. senator for how many years?" and "How many justices sit on the Supreme Court?"

Answers to the question of how many House members there were included 91, 100, 200, 12, 68, 2, 126, 13, and 32. Two students correctly knew there are 435 members.

Answers to the question the term of a U.S. senator elicited three correct answers of six years; nine blank responses; and individual guesses of three, two and four years.

On the Supreme Court, nine offered no number at all. Three got it right by answering nine, and the final three ventured the numbers of three, 100 and two.

Please do not ask me why.

Also, don't ask me why when asked, "What is the economic system of the United States?" only three answered capitalism. Why, when asked, "Who is current vice president of the United States?" two couldn't remember Joe Biden. Or, why, when asked, "What do we call the first 10 amendments to the Constitution?" only eight of the 15 answered the "Bill of Rights."

Not all the questions were easy.

Few can answer for sure how many current amendments there are to the constitution (27) or name one of the three authors of the Federalist papers (James Madison, Alexander Hamilton or John Jay).

Still, it's sad that the only question of the 20 that all 15 students got right was, "Who was Martin Luther King?"

Think it's time to require students to do what we expect new citizens to do?

My answer is yes.

Michael Goldman is a paid political consultant for Democratic candidates and president of Goldman Associates in Boston.

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Michael Goldman
Published Date: 
Tuesday, February 17, 2015