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Should all students pass a citizenship test as condition of graduation?

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Led by majority chairmen Reps. Steve Barrar (R-Chester/Delaware) and Stan Saylor (R-York), the Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedne...
New U.S. Citizens Ceremony in Carlisle

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Led by majority chairmen Reps. Steve Barrar (R-Chester/Delaware) and Stan Saylor (R-York), the Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness and Education committees held a hearing to hear testimony on House Bill 1858, which would require students to take the naturalization test as a condition of graduation.

“This bipartisan bill, which has nearly 50 co-sponsors, would help to prepare our students for active, engaged citizenship,” Barrar said. “Without knowing how our government works or its rich history, they don’t have the building blocks to respect our democratic process and their place in it.”

The legislation would require students to pass the civics test with a 60 percent minimum between ninth and 12th grades as a condition of graduation (or earning a GED). Schools would have the flexibility to determine how the test would be administered for all students – including those living with physical or mental disabilities – and students would be allowed to take the test as many times as necessary to pass.

The exam is the same one that immigrants who wish to become a United States citizen must pass. Because it already exists online and is free, the bill would not be an unfunded mandate. Also, a study guide will be available (also for free) in October.

Dr. Lucian Spataro of the Civics Education Initiative shared the support that many states have demonstrated regarding the prioritization of teaching civics and United States history. “Since launching the initiative, 14 states have enacted this exact or similar legislation and an additional 25 states will be considering this legislation next year,” said Spataro.

The Hon. Marjorie Rendell, president of the Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Engagement, highlighted the urgency of the issue. “Only 26 percent of Americans could name all three branches of the United States government, and just 31 percent couldn’t identify a single branch,” she said. “There are many reasons for this decline, among the most significant are an over-emphasis on a few curricular subjects over others, lack of attention to civics because it is not part of more state’s testing regimes and a lack of appreciation for the central role the civic mission or our schools play in maintaining the health of our representative democracy.”

Testifiers representing the Pennsylvania State Education Association, Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania Principals Association opposed the legislation, noting that taking a civics test does not make a person knowledgeable about government or an engaged citizen. Further, they noted that the test requires rote memorization of facts and would take time that could be used to teach.

Those who did not support the bill also explained that adding another high-stakes test that could serve as a barrier for a student to graduate – regardless of his or her performance and achievements throughout his or her academic career – does a disservice to the very students the education community is trying to engage.

After hearing the testimony provided, an impassioned member of the Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee responded to a buzzword that was thrown around throughout the hearing. “It is high stakes that kids aren’t voting. It is high stakes that young adults aren’t enlisting to serve our country. It is high stakes that they don’t appreciate the sacrifices made by so many for our patriotic ideals. It is high stakes not to pass this bill,” Rep. Bryan Barbin (D-Cambria/Somerset).

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