I made the news: Arizona Civics Group Targets California after Winning Test for High School Graduation


by Adolfo Guzman-Lopez of 89.3 KPCC Radio

After success in Arizona, civics education advocates are looking to push through a requirement in California that public school students pass an exam based on one given for U.S. citizenship.

“We hope to get out to California maybe in the next year or two and start working with citizens, legislators, teachers there, and see if we can’t make this happen in California as well,” said Sam Stone, Civics Education Initiative executive director, on Friday.

Stone said his group cheered when Arizona lawmakers and the governor approved a new law requiring public school students to pass a civics test to graduate, one based on questions given by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to immigrants seeking citizenship.

Federal officials asks individuals 10 questions orally and require six correct answers. The Arizona law requires students to pass 60 out of 100 questions from the test.

The exam asks such questions as “What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?” and “Who is in charge of the executive branch?”

Stone said legislators in other states, including North Dakota, are considering authoring similar civics laws.

California educators had mixed reactions to the new civics requirement in Arizona.

“My first thought was, ‘Wow, now we have to take a citizenship test to get out of high school,’” said Julie Shankle, Torrance Teachers Association president.

Many questions need to be answered before California adds another required test to the classroom calendar, she said.

“Our government has made testing so toxic, and it boxes students in and it forces us to do all these bubble tests and rote memorization tests and it doesn’t really promote active learning,” Shankle said.

Brent Heath, a recently retired social studies teacher from the Ontario-Montclair School District, feels California should follow Arizona’s lead to address the low level of civics knowledge among teens.

“If it isn’t tested, it isn’t taught,” he said.

Heath served as a member of the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning, which released recommendations last year to help increase students’ knowledge of history, government and the role of citizens.

“By requiring a test, that would be one way to shove and push educators to really ratchet it up a notch or two in terms of civic activities and civic action that students get involved in,” Heath said.

Opponents of the Arizona civics requirement argue California already requires students to take a government class in high school to graduate and many students carry out community service projects in high school classes that can teach them about citizenship.

California also requires teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade to talk to students about civic responsibility. To Shankle, that is “far more worthwhile than being able to tell me who the 16th president was.”

My additional thoughts: Would this group recommend adding a portion to the California High School Exit Exam? Are they really advocating rote memorization answers about our nation’s government and history over civic duty and involvement?

Our schools currently have government classes, many requiring service learning projects (the school where I teach has service learning at both junior and senior levels). Schools also feature a plethora of service clubs in which many students learn first hand about community service and being active citizens, clubs like Key Club, National Honor Society, Julians and Valiants, California Scholastic Federation, and Student Council. We have wonderful support programs like the PTA’s Sacramento Safari (where students visit their lawmakers in Sacramento) and the American Legion’s Boys’ State and Girls’ State (where students spend a week participating in a model of local and state governments) as well.

While I’m all for a citizen of this country being able to answer the most basic of cultural, political, and historical literacy questions (the number of students who can answer these questions truly is abysmal) –and educators DO WANT high expectations and standards for students–is one high stakes test that boxes kids into rote spitting out of answers how we measure that cultural, political, and historical literacy? Mr. Heath,  the other teacher in the article, may be right that in many districts that teach to the test and only the test, having basic civics on the test does seem to be the answer. In the end though, I see adding yet another high stakes test to the already full plate of tests that students already take without addressing the root of the problem. Finding the reasons why students care so little to hang on to the information that is indeed taught to them, discovering why they are so divested and disenfranchised takes more than adding another test that does nothing but test, blame, and punish.

The Civics Education Initiative does advocate using the actual questions from the US Citizenship test to avoid the costs of developing a test because the test and study materials already exist. The area that I am in most agreement with the Initiative folks is that social studies is left out of the high stakes testing game altogether (which might really be not such a bad thing)–which can make it seem less important than math, language arts, and STEM to district administrators. But government is taught. Matter of fact, it is a requirement for graduation from high school in California, though it may not be in every state. The Civics Education Initiative listed Oklahoma and Arizona specifically has having only 4% of students who could answer what the the three branches of government were. I grew up in Oklahoma. I did not have high school government class. I did have 7th grade civics. And I had one semester of economics and one semester of Oklahoma history in high school to go with World History and US History. I’m sure a lot has changed in the three decades since I was a student in Oklahoma schools and the two decades since I taught there.

One thing that I’m sure hasn’t changed is the impact of poverty on learning. At some point, those who wish to reform the system need to quit saying that teachers don’t teach it (when they more than likely do), then high stakes testing kids who haven’t had a solid meal on a subject they don’t quite grasp the importance of when they have to go home and take care of their little siblings and hope they have enough food for dinner while mom and dad work three part time jobs apiece just to pay the rent. When we acknowledge that the problems our students face takes more than just throwing a test at it to solve, then we can start to have a real discussion about investment in civic life in this country. 

So kudos to the Civics Education Initiative for advocating for a strong civics curriculum and demanding that students know the basics of good citizenship and how our government functions. Now we just have to look at the bigger picture as to how to invest in our students without playing the toxic testing game.

P.S. One of my colleagues gives the U.S. citizenship test to his government students as a test in class. So some students do indeed get exposure to the very facts the Initiative folks hold so dear. 🙂 

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