Arizona High School Graduates Must Prove Their Civics Knowledge


Arizona lawmakers blazed new ground this last week, passing legislation requiring high school seniors to prove their mastery of civics knowledge before being allowed to graduate and receive their diploma. Similar bills are under consideration in several states, but as the first law of its kind in the nation, the Arizona statute has sparked much debate over whether it is an effective way to accomplish its stated purpose of engaging students in civic involvement and responsibility. Although a few states require a civics exam, the latest move by the Grand Canyon state legislators, raises the bar to a new level in making it a graduation requirement.

The 100-question test would cover basic civics knowledge required of any potential immigrant seeking citizenship status. Questions on the Arizona test will include basic factual knowledge about the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Founding Fathers and presidential history. Students would only be required to receive score of 60 in order to graduate. The Joe Foss Institute (JFI), which authored the bill, would like to see such tests be compulsory for high school graduates in all 50 states. Supporters of the measure feel that it is only reasonable and logical that schools require proof that their graduates hold the same basic level of citizenship knowledge as is expected of immigrants because they are the leaders of the future. Therefore, knowing and engaging in the values, rights and responsibilities of this country is a fundamental necessity.

Such necessity has been long neglected, however, as shown by an Annenberg Public Policy Center survey in 2011, which revealed significant gaps in the knowledge of the sitting Supreme Court justices, Constitutional history and the structure of U.S. government. People struggled with naming the current chief justice, identifying the year the Constitution was signed and naming the three branches of the United States government. Voter turnouts have been at record lows in recent elections in many places around the country indicating a significant disengagement in basic citizenship responsibilities and the political process that built this country. Only approximately one-eighth of high school seniors are able to earn a “proficient” score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Advocates of the Arizona citizenship test for high school graduation acknowledge that it is not a panacea to all the ills of civic apathy that has taken hold in the younger generations. However, it is a small step in the right direction, they assert. They plan to phase-in the graduation requirement by the class of 2017. JFI reports that 15 states, including Tennessee, Utah and South Dakota are considering adopting similar laws. North Dakota also passed a civics testing requirement into law shortly after Arizona on Thursday.

The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools’ executive director, Ted McConnell worries that although the Arizona law makes a decent first step in solving the citizenship and civic engagement issues facing this country, testing will likely not prove to be the best solution for the problem. Passing a test that only requires rote memorization of facts does nothing to motivate the spirit of civic responsibility. Routine knowledge does nothing to inspire the internal sentiment of good citizenship that is necessary to get at the heart of the problem.

Arizona high school teachers and school administrators worry about taking up valuable class time to prepare for and administer the test that may not be able to accomplish its goals and end up being just one more test that students study for and quickly forget without applying the principles to their daily lives. Many point out that if inspiring graduates to civic engagement is the goal, a knowledge test is not an accurate measure to prove their progress toward this objective. The net effect of government involvement in legislating the content of education generally ends up restricting the compulsory curriculum to a narrow set of discrete standards that prevent teachers from engaging students with creative and content-rich learning activities, which provide a more comprehensive understanding of the material. In spite of the debate, however, the stage is set in Arizona to test the efficacy of civics exams in promoting the practices of good citizenship in their graduates.

By Tamara Christine Van Hooser


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Image courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski – Flickr License

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