On Thursday, Arizona became the first state in the nation to make passing a US citizenship test on civics a requirement for high school graduation. The bill, which newly elected Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed into law Thursday evening, was passed among a nationwide effort to boost civic education.
Proponents of the new law claim that Americans do not know enough about civics and that urgent measures must be taken to ensure American students at the very least develop the same baseline knowledge required for new citizens.
“Every new citizen has to demonstrate this knowledge, so this is creating a community standard of what we want everyone to know,” Sam Stone, a spokesman for the Civics Education Initiative, the nonprofit pushing the test nationwide, told the Monitor in December. “This is a basic test.” But some believe that using US citizenship tests isn’t the best way to promote civic awareness, and that students will not become engaged with the issues by studying for yet another test.
A 2011 survey by The University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center found that just 15 percent of Americans could correctly identify the chief justice of the US Supreme Court as John Roberts. Meanwhile, only 13 percent knew the US Constitution was signed in 1787 and only 38 percent were able to name all three branches of government, The Washington Post reported.
Meanwhile, Arizona House majority leader Steve Montenegro (R) recently cited a federal study that found two-thirds of students measured below proficiency in civics.
However, not everyone is convinced that testing is the answer.
"The interest is promoting civics, and we want to see students engaged,” Joe Thomas, a high school government teacher from Mesa, Ariz., told the Associated Press. "I don't know if a test engages students."
Many education advocates argue that students are already tested too much and question whether they really absorb and retain the information they are required to memorize to pass a test.
David Bradley, the only Democrat on the Arizona Senate Education Committee who voted against the bill, says that civic engagement cannot be measured by just one test.
"Don't be fooled into thinking that this does it, that this solves some bigger problem, because it doesn't," Bradley said on the Senate floor, AP reported. "My point now is tests don't make citizens, citizens are tested by their actions."
But the ability of tests to promote learning may be underestimated. In 2011, research published in the scientific journal Science found that students who read a passage and then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained around 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used other methods.
Arizona students will now be permitted to take the test as many times as they need to pass. But many educators still fear that taking the same test multiple times won’t lead to learning.
"The kids who retake are the ones who need more instruction, but the more they retake, the less instructional time they get," Debbie Brockett, a high school principal in Las Vegas, told NPR when questioned about end of year testing in American schools.
Meanwhile, Steve Yarbrough, the Republican Arizona Senate majority leader who sponsored the bill in his chamber, conceded that "requiring that students pass this test is not by any means a silver bullet,” although he does believe it is a step forward, AP reported.
The new law will require students to answer 60 out of 100 questions correctly in order to graduate. This is the same requirement for new citizen applicants. In total, 18 states are likely to consider civics test requirements this year, according to the Joe Foss Institute, the Arizona-based nonprofit organization that authored the bill.
Think you could pass the test? Take the Monitor’s US citizenship test to find out.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.