WASHINGTON – The civics test that will be required of all graduating high school seniors this spring does not appear to have been that much of a test for members of the Class of 2017.
The Arizona Department of Education does not keep statewide statistic, but calls to individual school districts found pass rates nearing 100 percent, with the number who have yet to pass getting smaller every day.
Gov. Doug Ducey, an ardent advocate of civics education, signed legislation in 2015 requiring that seniors pass a basic civics test before they can get a diploma, beginning with the Class of 2017. Details of how and when to give the test were left to school districts, but the apparently high success rate has left supporters of civics education pleased.
For critics, the success rate is evidence that the test resembles little more than “barroom trivia.”
“It eats up another instructional day, it gives another silly high-stakes test to our students and it’s completely unnecessary,” said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association. “This information is already covered, taught and assessed in a multitude of other courses that the students take.”
Katie Hansen, the social studies content specialist for the Phoenix Union School District, said she has “mixed emotions” about the test. While the current test may not be “aligned with our current standards and our content,” she said, the mere fact that a civics test is required demonstrates the importance of the topic to state officials.
“When legislators decided that civics is an important part of our society that valued our content, it showed that what we teach is very much important,” she said.
The experience of PUSD with the test seems to be similar to other districts contacted. The district has seen more than 5,300 of its seniors pass the test and the remaining few – Hansen put the number under 30 – are expected to soon follow.
The Yuma Unified High School District is in a similar situation had 98 seniors who had yet to pass by late April, but was working on a “school-to-school-basis” to ensure each student passes, a spokesman said.
“I would anticipate in a week, that number is going to be lower,” said Matthew Buckley, the Yuma spokesman. “Each week we get closer to graduation that (number) is just going to keep dwindling further and further down.”
Akshai J. Patel, co-founder and CEO of the Phoenix Collegiate Academy, also said he does not think the test “will be a barrier for graduation for any of our students” at the charter school.
The test is drawn from the same naturalization test given to people applying for U.S. citizenship. It covers everything from branches of government to presidential history to identifying Native American tribes.
-Cronkite News graphic by Arren Kimbel-Sannit. (See the full 100-question test here.)
But while the naturalization test consists of 10 questions chosen from a list of 100 and given as an oral exam, the state test requires students to answer all 100 questions on a written multiple-choice form. A passing grade for both is 60 percent correct.
Thomas called the legislation that backed the test a “dog-and-pony show” based on “shoddy” research that resulted in a “ridiculous” test.
“We’re investing thousands of dollars a year,” Thomas said. “I think we need to go deeper than, you know, name the president.”
But the chief academic officer for the Joe Foss Institute, which pushed for the tests, disagreed.
Lucian Spataro said students are doing more than learning simple facts and echoed Hansen’s feeling that civics has been moved to the front burner alongside math, science and English.
“Kids are doing well on these test because teachers are teaching in a way that rewards understanding and not memorization,” he said.
Spataro said educators opposed to the test are downplaying the important work of teachers who do more than just enforce memorization but incorporate civics into the curriculum.
“They need to give their colleagues more credit because they know full well that kids don’t learn long-term, through rote memorization, they learn long term through higher discussion,” Spataro said.
“If this test was necessary, some districts in the state would already be doing it,” he said. “If teachers really felt that it was necessary for kids to take a test like this, we would already have this assessment.”
Before the test, however, civics was “a subject area that wasn’t being emphasized,” Spataro said. He compared it to English where you need to “learn the alphabet before you write a sentence.”
“Before you can have higher level discussion about subjects and disciplines, you have to know the facts,” he said.
While students who fail the test will not get a diploma, Hansen said some details were still being worked out. Odds of blocking a student from graduation seem unlikely, she said, but “never say never.”
The district does all it can to make sure students have a chance to pass the test, she said. But “in the event that they exhausted of all of their opportunities, per state law, they wouldn’t meet graduation requirement, so we wouldn’t be able to confer them a diploma.”