Why aren’t Arizona high schools teaching civics?

by Matthew Ladner, Ph.D. 
Goldwater Institute
Just in time to celebrate Independence Day, the Goldwater Institute will release its new report, “Freedom from Responsibility: A Survey of Civic Knowledge Among Arizona High School Students,” which reveals only 3.5 percent of Arizona high school students have learned the basic history, government and geography necessary to pass the U.S. Citizenship test.

To conduct the survey, we hired a firm to interview 1,140 Arizona high school students and ask 10 questions drawn at random from the exam given to applicants for United States citizenship. Applicants for citizenship must get six out of 10 questions correct to pass. A recent trial found that 92.4 percent of citizenship applicants passed the test on the first try.

Below are the survey questions, the correct answers, and in parentheses the percentage of public school students providing the correct answer for each question.

1. What is the supreme law of the land?          

Answer: The Constitution (29.5%)

2. What do we call the first 10 amendments to the Constitution?

Answer: The Bill of Rights (25%)

3. What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress?

Answer: Senate and House (23%)

4. How many Justices are on the Supreme Court?

Answer: Nine (9.4%)

5. Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?

Answer: Jefferson (25.3%)

6. What ocean is on the East Coast of the United States?

Answer: Atlantic (58.8%)

7. What are the two major political parties in the United States?

Answer: Democratic and Republican (49.6%)

8. We elect a U.S. Senator for how many years?

Answer: Six (14.5%)

9. Who was the first President of the United States?

Answer: Washington (26.5%)

10. Who is in charge of the Executive Branch?

Answer: The President (26%)

Only 3.5 percent of traditional public high school students passed the test. That’s 40 students out of a sample of 1,134 district high school students.

Arizona’s 8th grade social studies standards require that students learn about everything from John Locke to the Mayflower Compact to the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution before high school. It isn’t clear what, if anything, Arizona students are learning in these classes, but it is abundantly clear what they are not learning–U.S. civics, history and geography.

In the report, I recommend that all Arizona high school students be required to pass a version of the U.S. Citizenship exam in order to graduate. Since then, one of our supporters came up with an even better idea: Make the exam a requirement for receiving a driver’s license. Interesting thought…
Dr. Matthew Ladner is vice president for research at the Goldwater Institute.


  1. Pricinct Committeeman says

    Of all the organizations that know better, the Goldwater Institute knows George Washington was not the first president.

    That title goes to John Hanson. He designed the Presidential Seal still used today. He designated the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. He created the first Treasury Department. He was allowed to serve only a one-year term. Not that bad an idea.

    The history lesson that should be learned is not to be too fast to get the first job. You will soon be forgotten as changes in the organization, like the Constitution, are made. Still, the first President of the United States was not George Washington.

  2. Wow! Bad results. Let’s cut the education budget. That’ll learn ’em some more.

  3. To spin off on a liberal bumpersticker, “If you think education is expensive, try indoctrination.”

  4. Matthew Ladner says

    Precinct Committeeman-

    We drew the items directly from the U.S. Citzenship survey. You can debate the Naturalization Service as to whether similarily named offices under the Articles of Confederation should be counted.

    As it happens, none of the students answered John Hanson. Several of them did however answer George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and even Barack Obama.

  5. George W. – first President in their liftime.
    Ronald Reagan – first Conservative President
    John Kennedy – first Catholic President
    Barack Obama – first African-American President.
    They are all right answers. Give them all a trophy. Clearly the question is too ambiguous. And certainly insensitive to those too young to remember George Washington.

  6. I am a huge supporter of public education. However, while we split hairs many of our kids do not enter the work force or life as an adult American properly equipped.

    We need to abandon the Carnegie Unit, determine best practices for both student achievement and financial efficiencies, and disallow the AEA from forming any educational policy. They are an union not an educational organization. They serve their members, non of which are the students of our schools.

  7. Conservative does not mean Republican says

    It reminds of me what Franklin said after the Constitutional Convention when asked what type of government we had,

    “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

    If our public education system continues to systematically fail in teaching the lessons of representative government, it will be our country’s undoing. As an ASU student, it sickens me to see how many people lack even a basic understanding of how government works. In fact, they take no interest at all in the process. Then, when it’s time to do the cool thing and “rock the vote” they put down Obama’s name. They have no friggin’ clue what their doing.

  8. kralmajales says

    I for one care very much about the statistics that Mr. Ladner cites. No question, this is a problem. The truth is that most school systems cannot afford to put more teachers in the classroom because we fail to care enough to fund our school districts.

    I grew up in WV. We barely had enough teachers to teach math, history and the like. We had one teacher that taught an American Govt class as an elective in the senior year. I took it and was forever changed.

    So this is a post I wont disagree with. I will only say that be before we start testing, why don’t we pay for teachers to teach this subject so that they can take the test and pass.

  9. kralmajales says

    Ha! Conservative…

    I remember when it used to be “cool thing” to vote Republican. They weren’t any smarter then either. What has happened is that people just dont like your party’s policies. Most your age, if you are traditional college age, also don’t like how your party wants to take its time in the legislature to legislate morality while at the same time arguing that you are for freedom.

    The young people I see in the classroom, as news stories today note, think your party and its “senior” followers as totally out of touch. Its why you should be thinking about either changing your party or getting prepared to be the modern version of the Whigs.

  10. Democratic PC says

    I think this is an issue where the Goldwater Institute could secure wide bipartisan support. If they ever have an effort to put such proposals into place, sign me up to campaign for it!

  11. Julian Diller says

    Any word on how charter or private schools faired? Or is it all just public school surveys?

    I would love to see civics be taught as a required curriculum class.

  12. Conservative does not mean Republican says

    Actually kramajales, the socialist indoctrination going on in our high schools and public universities is what brainwashes young people into voting democrat these days. Universities are overwhelmingly filled with professors that identify themselves as “liberals.” Nearly 75% identify themselves as “liberals” and at the top universities it grows to over 85%. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A8427-2005Mar28.html)

    I should know. I’ve experienced it. The only non-liberal professors I’ve encountered teach economics. Isn’t that ironic? The one subject that you consistently rail on, is the one on which you have the least academic support? Haha.

  13. James Davidson says

    Precinct Committeeman:

    You are close but no cigar. Hanson was never President of the United States. That’s an old canard, but it makes a good Jeopardy question.

    Hanson’s title was President of the United States in Congress Assembled or President of Congress. His office was so different from the presidency under the Constitution that no one could consider the two the same.

    The lack of money is not why public education lacks so badly in this area. It is a lack of leadership.

    May I give you one example? In my school district, one of the biggest and best in Arizona, the American history course, given in the 11th grade, begins at 1914. I asked the superintendent why? commenting that no one could really understand American history of the 20th Century without knowing what happened at least since 1607, if not earlier in England. She said it was because history of the earlier years was taught in the seventh grade. I said it should be repeated in the later grades, because seventh graders were not old enough to understand the significance of the events and likely would not remember most of it anyhow. That drew a blank stare.

    American history and civics are easy to teach, and do not require special equipment or extra expense. The trouble is that they draw little interest within the education establishment.

  14. I too am concerned by the lack of basic understanding of our political system in the entire population. When I was in (public) high school I certainly could have answered all of these questions correctly, so I am astounded at the results.

    Having read the report, and I suggest everyone do so, it becomes obvious that while the summary above portrays this as a public school problem, the fact is that it is a problem for all high school students, public or private. They do in fact survey charter and private school students, as someone asked above, but fail to note that in the summary article.

    The survey was conducted with 1134 public high school students, 136 charter high school students and 1350 private high school students.

    The low number of charter school students is justified by this being somewhat proportional to the total ratio of charter students to regular public high school students. This of course raises the question of why more private school students were interviewed than all public and charter school students combined.

    What is shown at the very end (hidden?) in the report is that not a single one of the *private* school student got all 10 answers correct and only 1, representing .01%) got 9 answers correct.

    In charter schools no student got 8,9,or 10 correct and only 1 student got 7 correct. In public high schools no student got 8,9,or 10 and 9 students got 7 correct.

    Over all, ~72% of public students answered less that 4 questions correctly, ~63% of charter school students and ~50% of private school students answered less that 4 questions correctly.

    What I also find shocking about this survey is that private schools students did not do better. Many, but not all, private schools filter who gets in and also have parents who put in additional funding to see their child is educated. Why is the private school number so abysmal? And the charter schools for that matter.

    Now returning to the sample size. The number of private school students clearly are a much larger sample size than the number relative to public high schools students. If they had been the same ratio, as is the case with the charter school survey, it is likely that no private school students surveyed would have answered 8, 9 or 10 questions correctly.

    In the report we are told that we should not worry about private schools since the choice of those is a private matter. Of course with “vouchers” and other support these no longer are simply a private matter since they are in essence receiving tax dollars.

    Speaking of responsibility, it would have been helpful if the study had identified what school districts were being looked at, what private schools and if there was any attempt to compare based on factors such as socio-economic status. Also of import would be information of response rates.

    Lastly, and something I am somewhat concerned about how exactly was a phone survey of 1134 public school students conducted? Is there some database with minors’ phone numbers and school status that this group had access to? My assumption from the report is that private schools aided in performing the survey among their students. How exactly were the public high school student identified for polling? I certainly hope this information is not made available by any public schools as I believe that would be illegal.

  15. Kenny Jacobs says

    I think one cause of poor understanding of civics is pride:


    Even Shane fails a basic point of government because he’s pouty.

  16. kralmajales says

    Conservative does not mean Republican Says:

    I guess you are just smarter than everyone else huh? That you could sit and listen to ideas in a classroom, be presented with evidence, and an attempt for you to tell your point of view and yet still…amazingly…you come out conservative.

    Guess the brainwashing only works on the other sheep, is that it?

    The argument you put forward is bogus. And by experiencing it, if you mean that you weren’t fed Hayek in every class then OH GOD…

    It does sound like you learned to be able to form an opinion and even attack the other sides argument…aint a bad thing is it?

    Last, if conservatives weren’t so damned greedy, maybe they would enter the profession of education. Ever ask yourself why you dont have more avowed conservative professors? It might be because a) you could notice because they weren’t spouting out ideology, or b) that they never entered the field because they are unwilling to serve and are unwilling to take the low salaries and lifestyle that comes with it.

    When you become a teacher, you can argue with me on this one….right now, you dont know what you are talking about.

  17. kralmajales says


    In addition to the fact that no professor has the power to brainwash you or your friends, business professors along with economics professors are often conservative.

    But you made a massive massive leap when you argued that young people are voting democrat because of their professors. Young people, like yourself, can think, do understand many of the issues that they deal with today, and I BET know civics better than the average voter does (which given the statistics is pretty sad, I will admit).

  18. kralmajales says

    I have to say more because this is important. There is a massive generation gap right now on issues and views on issues. The GOP under Reagan did not gay bash in the news, they did not actively try to toss men and women out of the military, in fact, I remember seeing some statistics that the log cabin republicans were quite quite active, huge supporters of the party financially, and they were also leaders in many cases. I even remember stats that showed that at the time most who self identified as gay or lesbian were about evenly split dem and GOP. Now, that doesn’t occur. It is the rhetoric and actions of the GOP that changed that. It is conservative republicans cowtowing to the religious right that has done this. Today, young people are more accepting of freedom and are more accepting of lifestyle, I bet, conservative that if I talked to you, you might even disagree with your party on a lot of these issues when you stop and think about it.

    This is pretty cool actually. When I was in college, I was right were you are now. I quote the same stats, blindly followed, advocated, and then the party left me behind…and then I left it. I became a libertarian like Thane and eventually realized that it just doesn’t work either…and is even more based on theory than even the GOP was at the time.

    Do I agree with everything that democrats say and do? NO. They blow it time and time again…like in this last election. But I now believe that the GOP spends and spends, the dems spend and spend. One spends on things that I no longer think is worth it and also wants to cut everything else. The GOP also wants to spend and at the same time calls for lower taxes. Which is tantamount to kiting checks. Those that really believe in balanced budgets are so off the reservation of what Americans want that people are turning on you left and right. Look at this budget mess. The true blue conservatives are the ones being ridiculed because people would love lower taxes, but they dont want no government.

  19. James Davidson says

    Come off it Kramaljes. Even the N.Y Times concedes that conservatives on the whole are more generous than liberals.


    Liberals are more generous with other people’s money. Conservatives are more generous with their own.

  20. To the discussion about higher education bias. It would not surprise me that university faculty are much more liberal than conservative, however, this does not at all translate into indoctrination or squelching of students intellect.

    A couple of years ago in Georgia, the GOP lead legislature was making a lot of noise about supposed bias in the states public universities and some were talking about putting forward a version of David Horowitz’s misnamed “Academic Bill of RIghts.” This lead to the commissioning of a survey to find out what was actually happening in university classrooms.

    The students who responded were roughtly a third Republican, a third Democrat and a third independent or other.

    Of these students 12.9% saw and anti-liberal bias, 10.1% saw a anti-conservative bias.

    The students mostly reported the problem with the atmosphere being the intolerance of other students, not professors.

    Some students did report having the experience of a professor who inappropriately presented his/her views. However, this was mostly a single incidence and the students felt that they were free to discuss and present their views in class. Also a small portion had an occurrence they described a professor grading on politics. This should never happen and I am sure that in some of the cases it is true. In others, in may be a situation of perception being different than reality. It reminds me of a profile of a conservative campus activist the New Times ran a couple of years ago in which the activist said the seminal experience of her political involvement was when a Political Science professor gave her a bad grade because her essay was too conservative. The New Times went and interviewed the professor who, as it turns out, is not only a Republican but remembered the essay and said the student received a bad grade because it was poorly argued.

    As I said, this should never happen, but this seems to be something conservatives and liberals, in Georgia at least, experienced at about the same rate. Considering the smaller percentage of conservative faculty, it might be concluded that conservative faculty have a much greater tendency to be involved in this type of behavior. More information on that would be needed.

    The legislature, after seeing the results of this survey, actually dropped their plan to offer legislation since they did not feel it was necessary.

    You can read more about this here including a link to the survey itself.

  21. James Davidson says


    Whats the business about gay bashing? In case you forgot, the miliyary’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy was put into law by a Democrat Congress in 1993 and signed into law by a Democrat president — Bill Clinton. The Defense of Marriage Act did pass the Republican Congress in 1996, but on a bipartisan basis — 85-14 in the Senate and 342-67 in the House, meaning lots of Democats voted for it. President Clinton signed it into law. President Obama opposes gay marriage, as does Secretary of State Clinton, and a long list of other Democrat officeholders. Neither conservatives nor Republicans come anywhere close to a majority in California, yet California passed Prop 8. We all know it passed with large majorities among African-American and Latino voters, drawn to the polls by the Obama campaign.

  22. Conservative does not mean Republican says


    Buddy, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t claim to have some sort of almighty immunity to being influenced by my teachers. I was merely pointing out that high school and college students are very maleable. Certainly they have the ability to form their own opinions. I’m positive I owe my conservatism to my family upbringing and not to public education. However, many students don’t get the opportunity to discuss and debate politics at home. The only exposure they get to the issues is in the classroom.

    And nice try by the way with the “you were in my shoes” bit. I actually believe in the underlying principles of conservatism and I continue to support candidates that represent my views. Their are solid conservatives whose ideas continue to gain influence and I will continue to support them.

  23. kralmajales says

    Happy that you are firm in your beliefs. Your argument still doesn’t hold water. Just how are young people any more maleable in college and to professors than they are to their own friends and families. Don’t most colleges have college GOPs? Yep. The brainwashing thesis is an insult to every student who attends college. It is also a “holier than thou” kind of argument that comes from folks like you who just seem to “know better” and “resist” that all-mind changing power of the college professor.

    As for what I said. I bet you will moderate quite a bit. I bet you will no longer believe what you do now unless you shut yourself from the world. If you have kids you will want good education…and you might even think that the rich school district that your business education or economics education buys you is better because it is better funded. You might also one day see that the extra dough you can afford to contribute to the school your child goes to is something that is not affordable to those in other school districts.

    Cause, like me, you will want the best for your kids. You might even send the to private school…and with that govt. could give you a tax paid voucher to help you with the costs.

    You might want student aid…do you take any? Do you have loans backed by the govt? Or do you play marter, take no aid, and work your way through. OR does mommy and daddy pay for it.

    And even if they do, you are still collecting a big fat subsidy because the price of your tuition at ASU is discounted massively by public dollars.

    Last question, are you ready to pay more? Are you? Cut more of the funding to your liberal professors that brainwash you and what you will get is a market rate at somewhere over $30,000 a year. Will you bitch and moan at that high price tag then? Ask your parents what they think?

    Oh yeah, less govt. the better.-

  24. kralmajales says


    Good points all. Clinton’s compromising, as much as I hate, built a pathway to equal rights for many in the LGBT community. As has Obama who has, at the same time he has said he doesn’t favor marriage, favors the same benefits that marriages bring for partners. He is chipping away at it, as did Clinton. The don’t ask, dont tell was a way (as much as I cant stand it) to allow men and women to serve as long as they hide in the closet and not make it an “issue”. THAT bothers me, but it is better than where it was before, which was that the army would immediately discharge people upon learning that they were gay or lesbian.

    It is no question that conservatives are attacking equal rights for gays and lesbians. Young people by and large oppose this. As you all die off, (and I dont want you to die James of course), those close majorities over marriage will not longer be around. I definitely disagree with the Prez on this one. He is hiding some on the issue because the majorities either way are slim. He will wait and he will strike at inequality when the opportunity presents itself, which is what I know you all fear.


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