10/17/2011 12:12 EDT | Updated 12/16/2011 05:12 EST

Would You Pass a Citizenship Test?

Fourteen-year-old Nadja Roberts of Brantford, Ontario was one of almost 20,000 students who took The Canadian Citizenship Challenge last year. Yet unlike the majority of her peers, she passed.

Last year, The Historica-Dominion Institute challenged students across Canada to study up and put their knowledge of Canada to the test just like new Canadians do to pass the Citizenship Exam and become citizens. We believe that all Canadians should be ready and able to answer questions about their home and native land.

And we have reason to believe they often can't. In 2009, we found that 42 per cent of Canadians did not know who Canada's first prime minister was, while Canadians polled in 2008 knew more about U.S. history (4.7 correct answers out of 20) than they did their own (4.2 correct answers out of 20).

In creating a 20-question student citizenship quiz, based on the Discover Canada Guide with which new arrivals are primed, we measured students' understanding of the ABC's of Canada's history, geography and electoral system.

The results from our student Citizenship Challenge were telling, and troubling. The national average score for students (grades seven to 12) was 68 per cent. A C+ may not seem so bad, but consider the fact that new Canadians must achieve at least 75 per cent on the exam to gain citizenship. We are left with a frightening fact: on average, Canadian high school students would fail to qualify for citizenship in their own country.

While a large majority of young Canadians tested know that Canada is comprised of 10 provinces and three territories and that our national colours are red and white, many were stumped by questions on causes of the War of 1812, Canada's major industries and the rights and responsibilities of Canadian citizenship.

But shouldn't our Canadian-born students be held to at least as high a standard as those who make Canada their adopted home? If we don't ask more of our citizens when it comes to knowledge of heritage and government we can't expect them to participate meaningfully in either. And the burden of cultivating a vibrant civic culture and a Canadian identity (that tricky, ever-evasive idea of "Canadianness") falls disproportionately to our newest inductees. That's like asking a rookie player to carry the team when they haven't played all season.

Citizenship should be about more than immigration. It should be about our shared history and our shared future. It should be learned and earned by all Canadians, both born and adopted. And if citizenship -- and its ultimate expression, the vote -- is as we often say an essential right and a privilege, it's one whose value we should be working to entrench early, and institutionally.

The most meaningful way to make that statement is to create a mandatory citizenship exam for high school students. By building a civics-based graduation requirement into curriculum, we would ingrain the idea that all Canadians should have a basic understanding of Canada's national history, geography, and culture and that we should be able to answer basic questions about who we are and where we come from. In so doing, we would also show our youth the value and importance of their Canadian citizenship.

Community activist Nick Noorani, who shares his own story of immigration from Dubai as part of our Passages to Canada New Canadian Speaker's Bureau, wants to see a citizenship exam like the one he took become part of the curriculum in high schools. "I see too many people who know so little of this wonderful country," he tells us.

Most importantly, we would empower our youth toward active citizenship. Research shows that knowledge is a key driver of civic engagement. Our recent youth election study, conducted during the 2011 federal election, found that youth who talked about politics at home were twice as likely to vote as those who did not. A conversation-starting, standardized test on how our political system works -- how leaders are elected, how government is structured and how laws are made, for example -- in addition to other fundamentals, is likely to increase youth engagement in national dialogue, politics and in their communities.

Only two Canadian provinces -- B.C. and Ontario -- have dedicated civics classes. Other countries have successfully established mandatory secondary school citizenship curriculum including England in 2002. Australia provides a national assessment of the Civics and Citizenship Education every three years for school years six and 10, which established national standards and allows the Department of Education to monitor the success of the civics curriculum.

We know that there is a substantial appetite for increased citizenship education among both teachers and students in Canada. This year, more than 30,000 students will register to take the Citizenship Challenge with us. That translates to over 1,000 classrooms across every province and territory of Canada.

But taking -- and passing -- the test should be more than a social experiment, a class project, or a source of national embarrassment. It should be a legitimate way of combating the tide of apathy and entitlement that we see in decades of depleted voter turnout and a concerning history report card.

For Nadja, and thousands of other Canadians students, the Citizenship Challenge was an eye-opening look at her own (lacking) civic IQ. At a leadership conference last year, she thanked us for the experience and said: "There was so much that I didn't know I didn't know."

Jeremy Diamond is a Director at The Historica-Dominion Institute, the largest charitable organization dedicated to Canadian history, identity and citizenship.