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Critics Say Required High School Civics Exam Won’t Produce Better Citizens

On Thursday, Arizona became the first state in the U.S. to pass a law requiring high school students to pass a civics exam before graduating. Lawmakers who support the bill say students don’t know enough about basic government, but would requiring such a test actually have the desired effect of producing better citizens?

The American Civics Act will require students to pass 60 out of the 100 questions on the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization civics test. The bill will likely be the quickest piece of legislation to pass both chambers of the Arizona Legislature and be signed into law by Governor Doug Ducey — going through the entire legislative process in a single day.

Implementation of the law, however, will not be immediate. The class of 2017 will be the first to have to prove they know the history and workings of the U.S. government before they can receive their diplomas.

“Requiring that students pass this test is not by any means a silver bullet, but I think is a step, a small step forward,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Steve Yarbrough said. “And I think we need to encourage the people of America to become more aware of the values of America.”

However, opponents of the bill say passing this test doesn’t automatically produce better citizens. Along with the additional costs to the state, a major concern is that knowing the answers to questions on a civics test isn’t the same as getting students more engaged in their communities and in the political process, nor does it encourage critical thinking.

Sixty percent is not much of a passing grade and it only requires rote memorization from students.

The 60 percent threshold is the same passing grade immigrants seeking citizenship need when taking the naturalization test. The difference is that high school students are given a little more room for error and will be better prepped. Those who take the naturalization test are given 10 questions from the list of 100 and have to get 6 of them correct to pass the civics portion.

The North Dakota House of Representatives passed a similar bill on Thursday, but it did not move through the legislative process as quickly. The Scottsdale-based Joe Foss Institute is heavily pushing these laws and has set a goal for all 50 states to pass it by 2017 — the 230th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution.

Though reports are conflicting, it is expected that between 15 and 18 state legislatures will consider similar legislation in 2015.