Utah Civics Test Repeal

By Deborah Gatrell

Civics is the study of the rights and duties of citizenship. Or is it?

Encouraged by an outside special interest organization, Utah Legislators required Utah students to demonstrate competency in civics via questions from the civics section of the Federal naturalization test in 2015. 

This should have been repealed when Utah’s secondary Government and Citizenship course was updated in 2017 based on the National Council for Social Studies College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, but it wasn’t. Rep. Elizabeth Weight’s HB 152 is an overdue correction to a flawed Legislature-mandated testing policy and an onerous graduation requirement.

Quick – Quiz yourself:

  1. How many amendments does the Constitution have?
  2. The House of Representatives has how many voting members?
  3. When was the Constitution written?
  4. The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.
  5. Name one U.S. territory.

You probably know some answers. But do these questions reflect the skills required for “informed, responsible participation in public life” described by Utah’s Government & Citizenship course?

The answer is a resounding NO.

A pass-fail “civics” test based on the USCIS question bank is an inherently flawed graduation requirement.

First, the USCIS question bank is invalid as an assessment of civics – these questions require recall of 100 random facts from American History, Government, Geography, and Holidays instead of reflecting the “rights and duties of citizenship” (actual civics) in any meaningful way. At best, they are superficial. It’s a bad test.

Second, this requirement doesn’t align with any Utah Social Studies competencies, so valuable instructional time gets wasted on “test prep.” Students must memorize answers instead of engaging in meaningful learning. 

Third, the administrative burden is ridiculous. Because most information is covered in Utah’s 8th grade US History course (not the Government class), that is when students first attempt the test. For those who miss or fail the test in Junior High, someone has to follow up.

Let me describe the process in my high school: Guidance counselors notify students who have not passed and the Social Studies department chair (that’s me). We figure out who teaches those students each semester, then each teacher has to activate electronic tests and help each student navigate the unwieldy testing platform. For students who need accommodations, teachers let me know so I can coordinate simplified tests with the Special Education department or Language Program Lead for English Language Learner students. Then I coordinate reporting among those teachers, the district, and counselors to ensure the students get credit, assuming they pass the test. And if they don’t pass?  Then there’s the hassle of getting tests reopened by district staff. There are hundreds of these students each year. None of us has time for this.

We’ve bastardized a naturalization test produced by the Federal government to create a graduation requirement that assesses our students’ knowledge of random trivia. It’s asinine.

As Peter Levine, Tufts University, noted in a 2015 Fox News Opinion piece, “Civics is important. Making kids pass the federal citizenship test is a well-intentioned effort to strengthen it. But it is the wrong approach. It implies that citizens should memorize disconnected facts, when what we need is deep knowledge, sincere interest, and true commitment.”

We’re lying to ourselves if we think a state-mandated test will somehow improve civic understanding and engagement for our young people. Dana Mitra, Penn State, and Kristina Brezicha, Georgia State, sharply criticize the Civic Education Initiative’s effort to push states across the nation to administer this test as counterproductive in a 2019 Peabody Journal of Education article. Even the conservative Fordham Institute and local Sutherland Institute acknowledges there is much to be done in this arena. Let’s not be afraid of doing the hard work.

But there is a better way. Let’s direct our Utah State Board of Education to identify best practices to encourage and assess civics within the framework of our Social Studies curriculum. This falls under the purview of the Board of Education. The Legislature should identify this as a priority, require a follow up report, and get out of the way.

In the meantime, let’s eliminate the graduation requirement in the spirit of the 2015 House Resolution calling for a reduced testing burden because “excessive and unnecessary testing in public elementary and secondary schools is counterproductive” and “this situation leads to students spending more time taking tests and less time learning.”

Join me in calling on Legislators to support Rep. Elizabeth Weight’s HB 152 Civic Education Testing Requirements bill.

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