National Civic Literacy Survey

Immigrants desiring American citizenship must pass a Naturalization test demonstrating basic civic literacy. 97.5% of immigrants passed this test in 2010.

The Center for the Study of the American Dream used the identical test to learn details about the civic literacy rate of native-born citizens. As first reported on USA Today, one in three of us fail the test, based on answering just 6 out of 10 questions correctly. Had the pass rate been 7 out of 10, a startling 50% of us would fail.

Why is this important to us here at the Center? It is our strong contention that civic illiteracy is a threat to the American Dream because it is a threat to the freedom we treasure. Our work over the last three years has consistently re-enforced the strong American belief in the relationship between the American Dream and freedom. Freedom is not found in the state of nature, and must be fought for and vigilantly guarded. In order to do this successfully, Americans are expected to know what freedom means beyond sloganeering and applause lines. This includes understanding the nature of the freedoms won by those who have gone before us and the obligations freedom demands of us to ensure its continuance. 

As a follow up to our survey, we hosted a Civic Literacy Trivia Night for Xavier students. Students competed in teams of four to answer questions such as "When was the Constitution written?" and "What is one promise you make when you become a US citizen?" We wanted to give students an opportunity to test their knowledge, because as our Founding Director wrote, "It is tempting to blame the schools for our low civic literacy scores but schools can only lead us to water. They cannot make us drink nor remember where the water is. It is an individual responsibility."

Highlights: 

  • One in three native-born citizens fail the civics portion of the naturalization test, in stark contrast to the 97.5% pass rate among immigrants applying for citizenship.* (Based on 6 of 10 questions answered correctly.)
  • If the pass rate were 7 out of 10, one half of all native-born citizens would fail.
  • While native-born citizens do well on basic questions related to history and geography, the results reveal a low level of knowledge concerning the principles and features of American government that underlie our civic life.
  • Gaps in familiarity and awareness are in two primary areas:
    • The U.S. constitution and the governmental, legal and political structure of American democracy
    • Basic facts related to current political life and identification of key political decision-makers 
    • In fact, in straight rank order, these questions elicited the highest incorrect scores.