PHOENIX — Arizona's new law requiring high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship test in order to graduate appears likely to be adopted in a handful of other states this year, though educators warn it's not a fix-all solution to the nation's dire knowledge of civics.
Fewer than a dozen states currently require students to take a civics exam, and passing it isn't necessary to graduate in all of them. In most states, civic education instead revolves around a one-semester U.S. history course.
Arizona on Thursday became the first to specifically require the U.S. citizenship test, a 100-question exam that tests knowledge of facts on subjects like the Founding Fathers, the Bill of Rights and U.S. presidents.
"This has been building for a long time," said Ted McConnell, executive director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, a civic learning coalition co-chaired by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. McConnell said he and others are wary that legislators are only skimming the surface of what students need to know.
"The folks who are civic educators and experts by and large are pushing for a much, much more well-rounded approach," said Paul Baumann, director of the National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement at the Education Commission of the States, a state-led research organization.
For years, education leaders have sounded the alarm on the state of civic education.
Just 13 percent of high school seniors scored as "proficient" or higher in American history on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Voter participation in the most recent midterm elections was the lowest in decades, and even entertainers like Jay Leno have tapped into the country's weak civic knowledge with laughable pop quiz history tests.
The Arizona-based Joe Foss Institute has set a goal of having all 50 states adopt the U.S. citizenship requirement for high school students by 2017, the 230th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. The institute says legislatures in 15 states are expected to consider it this year. The North Dakota House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the same measure Thursday, but Arizona's proposal was the first to become law.
The Foss Institute promotes the test to state legislatures as a way to increase knowledge of basic government by students. The leader of the organization is former California U.S. Rep. Frank Riggs, who came in last in Arizona's Republican primary for governor after running a hard-right campaign focused on immigration and rhetoric against President Barack Obama.
The Arizona law requires high school students to correctly answer 60 of 100 questions on the civics portion of the test for those aspiring to become U.S. citizens. Passing is required to earn a high school or GED diploma starting in the 2016-17 school year.
Utah, South Dakota, Tennessee and other states have bills already presented or about to be introduced.
McConnell said he believes the Foss institute's projection that more than a dozen states will pass the requirement this year is accurate. Yet he and others who have been pushing for improved civic education sum up the effort like this: "Right problem, wrong solution."
"The leaders in the civics education field I've spoken about this with are generally concerned that this exam does not capture the full breadth and scope of the competencies and outcomes we're looking for students to develop," Baumann said.
Baumann said states that do have a civics exam — other than Arizona — test knowledge that the U.S. citizenship exam does not: Valuing equality before the law, the purpose of democratic government, and good citizenship practices.
The citizenship exam, by contrast, only requires "very basic knowledge of U.S. government," he said.
"We fear this test would take away the precious little time awarded for civic education now and drive instruction toward dry, rote memorization of facts that would quickly be forgotten," McConnell said.
O'Connor, the co-chair of McConnell's group, initially supported the Foss Institute's work but did not back the U.S. citizenship test requirement bill; judicial work precluded her from being involved in any legislative initiative. It was unclear whether she favored the test as a component of civic education.
The U.S. citizenship test requirement also comes amid a larger debate over concerns that testing required under No Child Left Behind and other laws has resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum — taking away time from instruction in topics like civics. One Center for Education Policy study found that 27 percent of districts surveyed reported reducing time on social studies either somewhat or to a great extent.