On Thursday, the House Education Committee narrowly failed to pass SB 878, a bill by Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Bigelow) that would require high school students to pass a citizenship test from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services as a prerequisite to receiving a diploma.
Rapert said that he intended to bring the bill back for another vote later in the day, but the committee’s planned meeting on Thursday evening was cancelled. If House Education meets again before the session adjourns, the bill may return.
Education Week wrote just this week about the faddish idea of requiring citizenship tests as a prerequisite to graduation. Arizona and North Dakota already have passed such legislation; South Carolina and Tennessee are considering similar bills currently.
As with all testing, it’s very easy to decree a requirement from state government and much harder to provide an actual education to students. Rapert’s bill provides no path for improving the civics education high school students receive. It only seeks to penalize kids for not passing an exam, which is something they’ve admittedly become quite accustomed to throughout their test-saturated K-12 careers.
Rep. Warwick Sabin (D-Little Rock) said on Thursday, “I think it would be great if all of our high school graduates could pass this test … I just hope that they’re prepared to do so through the education we’re providing in our schools”
“What kind of preparation are we actually going to make provisions for in our school curriculum?” he asked. The USCIS citizenship test consists of 100 questions, and Rapert’s bill requires students to correctly answer 60 percent of them. “I have seen the test, and it’s a very difficult test, actually. I’d venture that out of this room, maybe 50 percent of us could pass it,” said Sabin
Rep. Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs), the committee chairman, presented the bill. As evidence for the need for the test, he repeatedly cited late night comedy sketches in which former Tonight Show host Jay Leno quizzes LA pedestrians on basic facts about history and civics. They inevitably fail, to the delight of the studio audience.
If a test is required of high school students, Cozart implied, such ignorance could be remedied.
“I think that’s something that will stick with them through life,” he said. He also emphasized that if a student fails the test, they’ll be able to take it again and again.
Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock) said such a requirement was “absolutely unnecessary … another burden on students, on teachers.” He also suggested there was a racial motivation behind the idea. “This test is intended to apply to persons of Hispanic origins,” Walker said.
Cozart denied that. “This is general, there’s no race in here … this is any student who graduates from a high school.”
When Walker asked Cozart if he’d seen the citizenship test himself, Cozart replied “No, I didn’t have to take it.” Walker then asked Deputy Education Commissioner Mike Hernandez, who was on hand to answer questions, if he was familiar with the test. “I have not seen it,” said Hernandez.
“Why is it we are so test-conscious when we haven’t had to have qualifying tests ourselves?” Walker said.
Several teachers testified against the bill, saying that they agreed that students needed more civics but that adding an additional test would not in itself do anything to fix that problem
“Social studies has gotten drummed out of the curriculum,” said one Little Rock School District teacher. “I think this is an issue that needs to be discussed, but when you think that testing is going to make that happen, that’s not really the answer.” She suggested that schools should start teaching civics in elementary grades.
Kendra Jones, another LRSD teacher, said the legislature should base policy on proven education research. “Right now, I don’t know what research is available that shows a [citizenship] test should be given,” she said.
Jones said to Cozart, “With all due respect, you were speaking of the late show as an example? I’ve watched those segments, but we have to remember that’s something that’s staged.” Cozart shook his head in disagreement.
The vice chair initially declared the bill passed on a voice vote, but Walker asked for a roll call, at which point it failed, 9-5. The bill would have needed 10 votes to pass.
My opinion: Should American high school grads, or any American, be able to pass a citizenship test? Absolutely they should. But I don’t see how requiring the test in itself does anything to give kids the knowledge and skills necessary to pass it. I think American high school grads should be able to do lots of things that many probably can’t do: Fill out a 1040, explain mitosis, identify Iran and Ukraine on a world map, articulate the concept of prime numbers, change a flat, communicate basic ideas in a language that isn’t English. I know I’d have trouble with at least two of those; I can’t speak for legislators. The education we want students to have often falls short of the education they get, but it requires actual work to remedy that situation.
Anyway, if you want to see how you measure up, here’s a modified version of a portion of the citizenship test from NBC. The official exam is not multiple choice.