June 9, 2016
Lawmaker Proposes Civics Test as High School Graduation Requirement
By Linh Tat
As the New Jersey Board of Education deliberates whether high school students should have to pass certain math and English exams to graduate, one state lawmaker wants to throw another subject into the mix.
Assemblyman Jay Webber, a Republican from Morris County, is sponsoring legislation to require students to pass a civics test, using the same set of questions asked of immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship.
His bill (A3894) is nearly identical to one introduced during the last legislative session by then-Assemblyman Charles Mainor, a Democrat. Mainor’s bill (A4226) never made it out of committee.
Under the latest proposal, students would have to correctly answer at least 60 of 100 questions. Students would be asked, for example, what the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution are called (answer: Bill of Rights), who becomes president if both the president and vice president can no longer serve (answer: Speaker of the House) or what stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful (answer: checks and balances).
Students would first take the test in ninth grade. Those who don’t pass would retake the exam each year until they passed. Local school boards would decide the method and manner in which the test is administered.
“The information that is on that test is essential to being a good citizen,” Webber said. “It doesn’t take a lot to make sure [students] know what makes them American.”
But some in the education circle aren’t on board with the legislation, saying the proposed test oversimplifies the goal of civics education.
“While we believe that civic education should be the core purpose of public schools. We feel that such a test risks simplifying that very complex endeavor. … The skills, knowledge and dispositions needed to be an active citizen in a democracy cannot be measured by a … test such as the one proposed,” the New Jersey Social Studies Supervisor Association wrote in an email to POLITICO New Jersey. “Social studies teachers across the state work hard to engage their students in democratic deliberation and meaningful debates about the future of our country and world. That is what real civic education looks like.”
Arlene Gardner, executive director of the New Jersey Council for the Social Studies and the New Jersey Center for Civic Education at the Rutgers University, concurred, saying the citizenship exam is a “simplistic response” to promoting civics education.
“The questions on the citizenship exam are all rote factual questions that do not indicate a real understanding of the nature of American democracy or the role of the citizen in our democratic society,” she said.
She further said it would not do to have a civics exam when the state does not require students to take a course dedicated to teaching civics education. States requiring such exams also have students complete a related course, she said.
Thirteen states have passed legislation requiring a civics test, according to the Joe Foss Institute, a nonprofit which started the Civics Education Initiative with the goal of getting all 50 states to adopt similar laws.
Webber, in response, said the exam is basic — his daughters in grades 6 and 8 passed, he said — and he believes the content on which students would be tested is, or could be, covered in courses they already take.
“It is a general knowledge exam — basic things we should be teaching them in history, in government, in economics,” Webber said. “It should be no heavy lift at all for schools to make sure that essential information is transmitted through their normal workload. Before one can be civically engaged, one has to be civically informed.”
View the U.S. naturalization test here: http://1.usa.gov/1RXwBh8