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Most People In Kansas And Missouri Fail History In U.S. Citizenship Test, Survey Shows

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A new survey suggests most natural-born citizens could not pass the history portion of the U.S. citizenship test.

Most people in Missouri and Kansas could not pass the history portion of the U.S. citizenship test, according to a survey released in February.

Neither could most Americans. The survey, conducted by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation in Princeton, New Jersey, polled 41,000 people in all 50 states, and 60 percent of them failed the exam.

In Missouri, 61 percent of those surveyed didn't pass. In Kansas, 56 percent of respondents failed.

The civics portion of the citizenship test is oral, and consists of 100 history and government questions. Each applicant is asked 10 questions, and must answer six correctly to pass.

"This is not about making sure that every American knows just enough about American history that they can do well at a bar-night trivia contest," says Patrick Riccards, spokesperson for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.

Instead, he says, it's about creating informed and engaged citizens who can question and think critically about how the government works.

"There's a balance between facts and dates," adds Jay Antle, a history professor at Johnson County Community College and the executive director of the college's Center for Sustainability. "You need to get some of those facts and dates in your head so you can then get to the important work, which is (being able to understand) chronology and causality."

Antle says we seem to be having sort of a breakdown of civics.

"That's made worse by the lack of understanding as to how the American govermental system has evolved over time — how politics has worked, how it should work ... and how political parties have changed or stayed the same," he says. "It's a serious problem."

Part of that problem could be the way history is taught, Riccards says. Forgoing worn-out textbooks for up-to-date technology like virtual reality, simulators and online videos would be one step toward ensuring a more captivating and accurate lesson in history, Riccards says.

A recent rise in civics education has seen some state legislatures push for laws that would require high school students to pass the citizenship test before graduating.

"Whether this is in reaction to a specific political problem, or whether this is in reaction to our general belief that the average American doesn't know enough about the country in which they live is still to be determined," Riccards says, 

However, he notes, "Continuing to teach American history the way we have for decades, and expecting that somehow today's youth is all of a sudden going to have that moment when the light bulb goes off — that's a fool's errand."

Patrick Riccards and Jay Antle spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up to Date. Listen to the entire conversation here.

Elizabeth Ruiz is an intern for KCUR's Up To Date. Contact her at elizabeth@kcur.org.