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Arizona civics group targets California after winning test for high school graduation

Arizona's new law requiring students take a civics test to graduate is spurring its advocates to target California for a similar exam.
Arizona's new law requiring students take a civics test to graduate is spurring its advocates to target California for a similar exam.
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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.”