Sooner citizens: Citizenship test results scandalous

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 19-Jul-2010

A new SoonerPoll finds that only 58 percent of those who attended high school in Oklahoma could pass the citizenship test that is required of all naturalized Americans (those born in other nations who seek to become U.S. citizens).

Forty-two percent of those surveyed, all of them registered (and likely) voters, failed the test.

University of Oklahoma President David Boren, who addressed the issue of poor civics and history education in a notable speech at the state Capitol earlier this year, told CapitolBeatOK:

“These poll results are truly alarming. I strongly agree with historian David McCullough who said that a nation cannot remain great unless it knows how it became great in the first place. We must know both our history and how our government works. If we do not understand our political system, including our Constitutional rights, we will fail as U.S. citizens to preserve our freedom.

“At OU we require both history and American Government courses to be eligible for graduation. We have just established a new institute to teach America’s Constitutional history. I believe so strongly in the need to educate our students about citizenship that I have taught the freshman American Government course for 31 semesters.”

According to the SoonerPoll conducted for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, on the citizenship test (also known as the naturalization test) Oklahomans had the worst time remembering two rights listed in the Declaration of Independence, but two-thirds were able correctly to summarize the ideals of self-government found in the first three words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.

Only one-third could accurately give the length of terms in the U.S. House, and a mere 42 percent correctly described the nature of the U.S. economic system.

The vast majority knew why the U.S. flag has 13 stripes (88 percent). Solid majorities could accurately name one war of the Nineteenth Century (78 percent) and in which war General Dwight D. Eisenhower served as a general (73 percent).

An absolute majority (61 percent) knew that Congress makes federal laws and 59 percent could name at least one of Oklahoma’s U.S. Senators.

Despite the few “brighteners,” results of the survey were rather bleak, regardless of partisan or ideological affinities or socio-economic status. (In fact, higher income earners fared slightly worse.)

Republicans, Democrats, liberals, moderates and conservatives performed similarly to the overall results.  Only 57 percent of public school graduates and 58 percent of rural residents passed the citizenship test, with only 54 percent of those living in Oklahoma City reaching 60 percent correct answers or higher. Both whites and blacks performed poorly (57 and 58 percents, respectively, passed).

The poll had comparative bright spots. Three-quarters (77 percent) of private school graduates passed. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Tulsans and 62 percent of Native Americans surveyed made a D or higher. Evangelicals were slightly above average, with 60 percent earning a passing grade.  

Results of the survey of more than 1,000 Oklahomans, all of whom attended state high schools, were recently provided to CapitolBeatOK. 

The performance pivot point on the ten-question survey was six of ten: 42% flunked outright (getting five or fewer answers right), while 58% had six or more right. In all, 42 percent got seven or more answers right.

To take the data to another level of specificity, 42 percent of respondents got an F (five or fewer), 17 percent got a D (six correct), 18 percent got a C (seven correct), 14 percent got a B (eight correct), and 10 percent got an A (nine or ten accurate answers).

As for those grades of A, nine percent had nine of 10 questions right, and one percent answered all ten questions correctly.

On the downside (the grades of F), 15 percent gave five correct answers, 9 percent had four correct, 8 percent had three correct, 6 percent had two right, and 3 percent had only one correct answer. 

Michael Carnuccio, president at OCPA, sponsor of the survey, reflected on the results: “Based on my teaching experience at Oklahoma State University, I am not surprised by these results.  Students are graduating high school lacking a basic understanding of the concepts of free markets and liberty that formed the foundation of this country.”

His colleague Brandon Dutcher, the group’s vice president for policy, said, “The results are disappointing, but not surprising. We know civic illiteracy is a problem — just look at NAEP scores, or President Boren’s speech this year, or Jay Leno’s latest ‘Jaywalking’ segment.”

Dutcher concluded, “After spending six figures on each student’s education, Oklahoma taxpayers have a right to expect a better return on investment than this. The fact that more people flunked this simple test than got A’s and B’s is appalling.”

SoonerPoll is a state firm, run by Bill Shapard. The Oklahoma-based firm has earned a respected record for transparency and disclosure, and is probably best known these days as pollster for The Tulsa World.

“I think the results expose the fundamental lack of understanding our society has for its basic freedoms,” Shapard said. “The point we stop understanding those fundamental freedoms is the point that we lose them.”

The SoonerPoll’s citizenship survey was conducted for OCPA from May 25 – June 24, 2010. In the scientific survey, SoonerPoll questioned 1,014 registered voters in Oklahoma who also attended high school in the state.

The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.

Questions in the survey were “open-ended” (allowing the person being surveyed to provide the answer). They were:

* The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words?

* What are two rights in the Declaration of Independence?

* What is the economic system in the United States?

* Who makes federal laws?

* Who is one of your state’s U.S. Senators now?

* We elect a U.S. Representative for how many years?

* Who is the commander in Chief of the military?

* Name one war fought by the United States in the 1800s.

* Before he was President, Eisenhower was a general. What war was he in?

* Why does the flag have 13 stripes?

NOTE: CapitolBeatOK works under contract with the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, sponsors of the Citizenship Survey, to provide incisive, accurate and timely reporting on the state Legislature, executives, and judges, including election news.