color guard naturalized citizens.jpg (copy)

A Colonial color guard presented the American flag as immigrants from around the world became U.S. citizens during a naturalization ceremony at Middleton Place on Tuesday June 26, 2018. File/Wade Spees/Staff

A new survey shows a sampling of adults in the Palmetto State could not pass the basic test of civic knowledge administered to prospective U.S. citizens. But, at least in this case, the future looks brighter.

South Carolina high school students, who have been required to take the same civics test under state law since 2016, fared much better than the state's adults as a whole when they took the citizenship test last year.

In a press release designed to grab headlines coast to coast, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation announced the results of its American History Initiative study, which administered a 20-question version of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services test of civics and history knowledge to 41,000 adults nationwide.

In an online multiple-choice version of that test, just 34 percent of South Carolinians who took it were able to pass. About 40 percent of respondents nationwide passed, according to the foundation, which provides fellowships and grants to teachers seeking to continue their education.

Meanwhile, a larger sample of South Carolina high school students paints a different picture. Of the more than 9,000 South Carolina high school students who took the naturalization test in 2018 in accordance with state law, 94 percent earned a passing grade, according to state report card data.

Charles Vaughan, a 24-year social studies teacher from the Columbia area and executive board member of the S.C. Council for the Social Studies, said he saw the Wilson survey results when when they started making the rounds online last week.

"It is a little shocking in some regards, and in some ways it's not," Vaughan said. "The way that we traditionally teach and test U.S. history is probably not the best way to do it. History is a process. ... It's not something that you can teach kids a laundry list of facts and expect them to regurgitate it back to you."

The Woodrow Wilson Foundation survey included about 1,000 adults from across South Carolina, according to a spokesman for the foundation. When asked how the foundation had ensured a representative sample, Adam Shapiro wrote in an email, "Lincoln Park Strategies, the pollster, ensured the final pool in each state was representative of gender, age, race, and educational levels."

The civics test is usually one of the final hurdles for immigrants seeking to become naturalized citizens. USCIS officers ask prospective citizens 10 questions chosen from a list of 100 regarding the country's history and system of government, such as "Name one branch or part of the government" or "Who was president during World War I?"

Prospective citizens must answer at least six out of 10 questions correctly. Unlike the multiple-choice online version administered by the Foundation, the actual citizenship questions are open-ended.

“Unfortunately, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has validated what studies have shown for a century: Americans don’t possess the history knowledge they need to be informed and engaged citizens,” Woodrow Wilson Foundation President Arthur Levine said in a press release.

The immigration exam has become a popular litmus test of civic knowledge in some legislative circles. Following a push by the Joe Foss Institute and the Civics Education Initiative, at least 13 states have adopted laws requiring high school students to take the test, including South Carolina, according to the Council of State Social Studies Specialists.

The James B. Edwards Civics Education Initiative, named for the former South Carolina governor, started requiring every high school student to take a version of the citizenship test as part of the mandatory U.S. Government course starting in the 2016-17 school year.

In 2017-18, high schools reported that 9,376 students took the civics test, and about 94 percent earned a passing score.

Students are required to take the test but do not have to pass it in order to pass their government class.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Get the best of The Post and Courier, handpicked and delivered to your inbox every morning.


Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.