Can you name the current speaker of the U.S. House? Do you know when the Declaration of Independence was adopted? Can you identify our nation's economic system?

If you can answer such elementary civics questions, education experts say, you have the makings of an engaged citizen - equipped to grasp the nuances of the current contentious race for the White House.

But if you draw a blank on these, and 97 more like them, you might be denied a high school diploma in Pennsylvania, starting in 2021.

Under a bill making its way through the state House, high school seniors would have to pass a test on the basics of American government before they could graduate - the same examination given to newly minted citizens by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

While the proposed mandate has elicited groans from test-weary educators, it has a wide range of powerful bipartisan allies, from the Veterans of Foreign Wars to former Gov. Ed Rendell and Judge Marjorie O. Rendell, who testified at a House Education Committee hearing last Monday.

"It's pretty pathetic - a lot of people coming out of high school don't even know who the president of the United States is," said Rep. Bill Kortz, (D., Allegheny), a cosponsor of the bill, introduced last month. "We have pushed the STEM" curriculum - science, technology, engineering, math - "so hard that when the No Child Left Behind came in 2002 under President Bush, civics kind of took a backseat."

The Pennsylvania bill is riding a cross-country citizenship-testing wave. Similar laws were recently adopted in 14 other states - the nearest, Virginia - and are under consideration in 25 more. Proponents with the national movement aim to have legislation in all 50 states by the 230th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution on Sept. 17, 2017.

Anyone expecting clear sailing for the bill in Harrisburg, however, might learn a different lesson in modern civics: Legislative Gridlock 101.

Already, the plan has drawn the ire of school superintendents and teachers who question the wisdom of piling on yet another standardized test - especially when there is still a heated, unresolved battle over whether to implement the Keystone Exams, which graduating seniors would have to pass in algebra, biology and language arts. In February, Gov. Wolf ordered a two-year hold on the exams as a graduation requirement.

"Why would we even think about creating another mandate when the current ones have already been delayed UNANIMOUSLY by both the House and Senate?" West Chester Area School District Superintendent James R. Scanlon asked in an email.

The bill's sponsors - about 50 legislators - say they have gone out of their way to ensure a civics test wouldn't be a burden on students or districts, financially or otherwise.

According to Kortz, students could take the test in parts and as many times as they like - even on their home computer, printing out their score and bringing it to school.

So, critics ask, where is the accountability? Districts would not even be required to forward test results to the state Department of Education, but would be held to an honor system to assure that students are passing it.

On this, though, both proponents and opponents agree: Too many Americans - adults and students - don't know much about how their government and political systems operate. Some trace that realization to an unlikely source: The "Jaywalking" skits on NBC's The Tonight Show, in which former host Jay Leno mined comedic gold from passersby who couldn't name a Supreme Court justice or a branch of government.

"It's funny, but it's sad," said Lucian Spataro, chief academic officer of the Arizona-based Joe Foss Institute, which is pushing for the mandated tests in all states through its Civics Education Initiative. Leno sits on the institute's board of directors.

"Kids are growing up today and aren't learning the basics of our country and how our government is governed," Spataro said.

The institute cites U.S. Department of Education statistics that only about one-third of Americans can name all three branches of government, and about 80 percent cannot list two of the "unalienable rights" in the Declaration of Independence. (Spoiler: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.)

In 2014, fewer than one-quarter of high school students scored "proficient" on civics on the only nationwide standardized test on the subject, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Advocates worry that lack of knowledge translates into low rates of voter participation and involvement in civic life.

"I cannot imagine students graduating high school without knowing America's history, our government structure, and basic geography," Thomas Brown of Swarthmore, state commander of the Pennsylvania VFW and a Korean War veteran, testified last week at the House committee hearing.

Ridley School District Superintendent Lee Ann Wetzel testified against the bill for the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. The test's backers, she said, are ignoring evidence that the state that birthed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is already doing a better-than-average job teaching civics.

Wetzel noted that Pennsylvania students scored 16 points higher than the national average on the U.S. history portion of the SAT. They also perform better than the nation as a whole on Advanced Placement exams for American government and history.

"It's this high-stakes testing notion that . . . if you don't have a test for it, it's not being taught," she said. "I was in a third-grade class yesterday and they were learning about Ben Franklin. We had a lovely conversation about Ben Franklin, so I know we're teaching it."

With time running low in the legislative year, Kortz said backers may reintroduce a tweaked version of the bill in December.

That would give Pennsylvania students a little more time to learn that Wisconsin's Paul Ryan is Speaker of the House, the American economic system is capitalism, and the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, right here in Philadelphia.

To take the proposed civics test, go to http://civicseducationinitiative.org/

take-the-test/

kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232

@Kathy_Boccella