GIORDANO: Students cannot pass a basic citizenship exam: A shameful indictment of our education system

The overwhelming majority of students fail the exam. The pass rate for the test is 70%. Out of the approximately 175 students, only 11 of them were able to pass the exam.

Nicholas Giordano is a professor of Political Science, the host of The P.A.S. Report Podcast, and a fellow at Campus Reform’s Higher Education Fellowship. With 2 decades of teaching experience and over a decade of experience in the emergency management/homeland security arena, Professor Giordano is regularly called on to speak about issues related to government, politics, and international relations.


A new semester is upon us, and as a political science professor at Suffolk Community College in New York, it’s important for me to gauge what my students already know about American government and politics.

Early on in my teaching career, I found that students came into college lacking a basic understanding of the founding of our country, the Constitution, the roles and responsibilities of our institutions, and the core American political philosophies, including concepts of liberty and freedom.

I decided the best way to measure my students’ understanding of the American government was to issue two assignments. On the first day of class, I give my students a citizenship exam asking very basic questions about our founding and our system of governance. Some of the questions include:

The overwhelming majority of students fail the exam. After twelve years of administering this exam, only 348 students have passed out of 2,176. A shameful indictment of our K-12 education system.

Even worse, the passing rate has dropped compared to when I first began giving the exam and has been stagnant over the last five years.

Sadly, this semester is no different. The pass rate for the test is 70%. Out of the approximately 175 students, only 11 of them were able to pass the exam.

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For the second assignment, I provide them with Chapter 1 of the Russian Constitution, replacing Russian Federation with the United States, and Duma with Congress. It is important to note that the Russian Constitution, crafted in 1993, begins with “We the multinational people…,” and that Chapter 1 consists of 16 Articles.

Students are asked to provide a one-paragraph written response sharing their thoughts on this constitution. Realistically, their response should be one sentence: this is not the United States Constitution.

Instead, many will write how they never actually read the U.S. Constitution, which is horrifying given the number of years they have attended school prior to taking my course. Others will reference Article 7 where it explains “…guaranteed minimum wages and salaries shall be established, state support ensured to the family, maternity, paternity and childhood, to disabled persons and the elderly, the system of social services developed, state pensions, allowances and other social security guarantees shall be established,” and praise the foresight of the founding fathers.

Needless to say, when I reveal the results and my deception, the look on the students’ faces is priceless. The shock, embarrassment, and shame can be seen in their expressions. These exercises, however, have proven to be an invaluable tool to make my classes more successful, and they dramatically improve student engagement.

There are three objectives behind these assignments.

The first is to open students’ eyes to how unfamiliar they are with the country they are living. As I explain to the students, they have opinions about everything, but how can they say what the government should/should not be doing when they do not know why the government exists, the institutions within the government, and the roles and responsibilities of these institutions?

The second objective is to teach students to think critically, ask questions, be suspicious, and speak up. After I tell the students what they read, some students will respond that they found it strange that the founding fathers would be talking about minimum wage, pensions, and other 20th and 21st century issues.

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My response is always the same, “Why didn’t you say anything or do a quick internet search?” Interestingly enough, they reply that since I am the professor, they trusted me, and I would know more about the subject matter than they do.

Even though they had questions, they went against their gut instincts and blindly complied with the assignment. I explain to my students the importance of questioning everything and thinking critically, regardless of who is providing them with the information.

My final objective is to get the students eager and more interested in the subject.

After the exercises, I begin to probe the students in an effort to understand how it’s gotten this bad. The overwhelming majority of students state that throughout their K-12 education, they were never required to read the U.S. Constitution. This is extremely frustrating, because by the time these students get to my course, not only should they be able to easily identify the Constitution, but it should also be seared into their minds.

The good news is that as my students progress throughout the semester, they understand the intent of government and how our system works. They gain the ability to formulate their own ideas on the issues and develop stronger arguments supported by solid evidence.

As an educator, it is not my role to indoctrinate them on what they should believe. Instead, it is my responsibility to assure they know how the American government operates, nurture their academic development, spark their intellectual curiosity, and get them to think critically about the issues.

After “The Great Shaming,” they are eager to learn.

While many criticize the younger generations, out of my nearly two-decades of experience, I am always amazed at how my students show a profound respect for one another and are much more open-minded than many would believe—far more open-minded than some of the people doing the teaching. Every semester, my students learn as much from me as I do from them, and I have little doubt the same will happen this semester.  


Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.