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Civics Tests as a Graduation Requirement: Coming Soon to a State Near You?

By guest blogger Jackie Zubrzycki

Eight statesArizona, Idaho, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and Wisconsin—passed laws in 2015 that require students to pass some version of the test given to immigrants applying to become naturalized U.S. citizens in order to graduate from high school, according to a recent article in The New Yorker. 

And the Joe Foss Institute, the Arizona nonprofit that has led the effort to pass such laws, plans to lobby to bring that requirement to every state by 2017. 

Education Week also has tracked the growing movement to include a civics test as part of a graduation requirementThe first laws were passed last January in Arizona and North Dakota. Seventeen states' legislatures considered such laws in their 2015 sessions. 

The New Yorker's Vauhini Vera traces the Institute's shift from a more personal approach to encouraging civic-mindedness in students—introducing them to veterans—to a remarkably successful lobbying effort for requiring testing in schools. The Institute says this is a way to address a national crisis in civic literacy. From its website: "Today, 4 out of 5 8th graders aren't proficient in civics and only 9 percent of 4th graders can identify Abraham Lincoln."

The effort hasn't been without critics. Utah teachers raised concerns about introducing a new test just as the legislature was resolving to reduce the number of high-stakes standardized tests. The directors of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University wrote in an Education Week blog that the civic literacy crisis may be overblown and that deeper conversations is a more effective way to foster civic engagement in young people than requiring them to memorize facts for a test. And Vera notes that immigrant students who have had less exposure to U.S. students may be at a disadvantage. (The National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks legislation in all 50 states, includes information on the civics test requirements in its page on immigration.) 

All 50 states and the District of Columbia require some amount of education in civics. And a few states have required students to pass an American History or civics test distinct from the test given to those hoping to become naturalized citizens. 

Next year will be a test of whether the citizenship-test-as-graduation-requirement will gain as much traction as the Joe Foss Institute hopes. All of the states that have passed the law so far tend to favor right-leaning political stances, but the Institute hopes to have civics tests in 20 states next year—including a few more-liberal states—and in every state by 2017. 

Wondering if you'd pass? Citizens-to-be are asked to answer six out of ten questions from this list of 100 questions correctly; graduates-to-be are responsible for a different number of correct answers depending on the state. 


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