Andrew Ujifusa writes in Education Week that Arizona and North Dakota adopted the passing of a citizenship test earlier this year as a requirement for high school graduation, and several other states are considering taking similar steps given concerns over how poorly public school students understand civics.
In Arizona, starting with the class of 2017, students must correctly answer 60 percent of the test’s 100 questions; in North Dakota, the threshold is 60 percent for that same year’s class and 70 percent for subsequent high school seniors, the journal reported.
Ohio and Virginia currently require students to pass some type of civics exam to graduate from high school, according to the Education Commission of the States.
In Illinois, as in Florida, there’s a network of academic institutions committed to providing students with opportunities to gain skills necessary to be effective participants in democracy. Illinois’s initiative, done without legislation, targets high school students through the state’s Democracy Schools.
In Maryland, high school students have to pass the High School Assessment, which includes a government test that features some civics content, or make it up by a project in government in order to graduate from high school.
Slight criticism of the civics initiative
Some critics from the Education Week article worry that simply passing a test based on the 100-question database for the Citizenship and Immigration Services exam, won’t improve students’ civics understanding. When did a standardized test ever improve students’ understanding of the tested subject, right?
And in one sense, the critics are right. However, they can’t see the forest for the trees. What happens when students have to pass a test is that teachers then prepare them to take that test. That preparation should, but doesn’t always, include learning more about the subject being tested.
So, while we’re not going to say the test or passing it will improve kids’ understanding of civics, we can say, almost certainly, that making kids pass a test will lead to more study of US history, the Constitution, the branches of government, and the rights and responsibilities of everyone living in the US.
Other states considering similar laws
In addition to the four states where passing a civics test is now required for high school graduation, at least 15 state legislatures are considering adding such a test or part of a test to their list of graduation requirements.
Bills have been defeated this legislative session in Indiana, Iowa, South Dakota, and Wyoming. As of March 10, bills were in committees in the following states: Alabama, Hawaii, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.
In Maryland, Senate Bill 806 would change the HSA government test, a move traditionally opposed by the Maryland State Department of Education but which has received the department’s blessing for this particular change, thanks to cooperation between the legislature and department officials.
“Beginning with the 2016–2017 school year,” the bill proposes, “the government High School Assessment shall include at least 10 of the 100 questions used for the civics portion of the naturalization test administered by the Citizenship and Immigration Services.”
The Maryland Senate’s Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee heard testimony about SB 806 on March 18. (Go to 14:30 in the video here.) “The basic assertion,” said state Sen Bryan W Simonaire, “is that if we’re requiring this of some citizen, saying, ‘At the very foundation of coming to America, you should know this as a minimal,’ shouldn’t we be teaching that to our students?” Mr Simonaire is a Republican from Anne Arundel County and the bill’s sponsor.
“In a government that’s designed for representative democracy, not knowing how the system works becomes very dangerous for young people,” said Samuel Stone in testimony before the committee. He’s the executive director of the Civics Education Initiative at the Joe Foss Institute, and he said he had worked closely with Mr Simonaire to craft this bill. He said young people have demonstrated they don’t know how the system works by:
- Declining civic participation rates
- Declining voting rates
- Declining civic participation in all walks of life
“Unfortunately, right now, you can look at study after study—from Pew, Annenberg, the National Assessment of Educational Progress—all showing basically the same results: that our students are lacking this basic information,” Mr Stone testified.