Tucson teachers questioned about the state’s new civics requirement largely gave it a thumbs up this week, saying the questions on the test are already part of their lessons.
Some even said they already use the test as a teaching tool.
But they cautioned there is more to civics and civic engagement than memorizing a list of questions and answers.
Gov. Doug Ducey signed the American Civics Act on Thursday, making Arizona the first state to require students to pass an exam based on the civics portion of the U.S. citizenship test.
Similar bills have recently been introduced in more than a dozen other states, including North Dakota, Tennessee and Indiana. The Scottsdale-based Civics Education Initiative, which is part of a larger nonprofit education group, spearheaded the proposal.
“What we’re doing right now is the first concrete step to the rebirth of civics education nationwide,” said Sam Stone, executive director of the Civics Education Initiative.
Students in the class of 2017 and onward will need to correctly answer 60 of the test’s 100 questions to graduate. If they don’t pass the first time, students can retake the test until they do.
In comparison, prospective citizens are required to correctly answer six of 10 questions in an oral exam. Arizona already requires students to take at least three credits, or classes, of social studies. That includes an American history class and a semester each of government and economics.
One local teacher will definitely celebrate the new standards.
“I am totally cheering,” said Sunnyside High School government teacher Warren Burda.
Burda hopes adding a civics test to graduation requirements will elevate the subject’s importance to the same level as math and reading.
“We’re behind in a sense that we have too many people that don’t know and don’t understand how our government works,” Burda said. “ I think this would help.”
Test is new, concepts are not
A painting of the early American flag, with thirteen stars, dominates the back wall of Burda’s classroom.
Earlier this week, students rewrote paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence in their own words. Another assignment was to explain government concepts with poetry or rhyme. An inventive group of students rapped about the right to petition the government.
Each activity is an effort to engage kids in learning how U.S. government works, concepts that haven’t changed fundamentally in the 40 years since Burda started teaching. Burda has also used the citizenship test as a teaching tool to show students what it takes to become a citizen.
“Shouldn’t you at least be right there, too?” Burda asked his class.
The civics portion of the naturalization test includes a mix of questions on American history, structures of government and current officeholders.
Sharon Akridge, a U.S. history teacher at Tanque Verde High School, said she has also incorporated the test into her class.
“The questions are questions that would be on a normal civics test,” she said.
Akridge said while she would support the new test, there are other activities that encourage a stronger sense of citizenship.
For example, students at Tanque Verde often do volunteer work. They have collected hundreds of pounds of nonperishables for the food bank, toys for children and soda pop tabs for the Ronald McDonald House.
“They learn that they need to be part of the community to contribute,” Akridge said. “This will be lifelong learning that they continue to hopefully do as they get older.”
The Arizona Department of Education recognized Tanque Verde High as one of the top 27 schools in the state for civic engagement last year.
Marv Sorensen, who teaches government and economics at Benson High School, wants his students to leave class with a sense of their responsibilities as a citizen and the ability to analyze issues such as immigration and marijuana legalization. Those concepts aren’t covered on the multiple choice citizenship test.
“I think there would be more memorization and less critical thinking, which is kind of a drawback,” Sorensen said. “The bright point might be students will know the basics.”
Another concern is funding. The law does not include additional money for schools to administer the test.
Amphitheater School District Executive Director of Secondary Education Mike Bejarano said he hasn’t received any details since the law’s passage.
“I know what I read in the paper this morning. That’s as much as I know,” Bejarano said. “We haven’t received anything from the Arizona Department of Education giving guidelines.”
Bejarano, who formerly taught American government, said he’s not worried about the test’s content, but students might need to start learning the concepts in earlier grades. American history and government classes aren’t usually taught until the last two years of high school.
“I like to think what we do already is giving kids the background they need to be good citizens,” he said.
The real goal of a civics education is to get students engaged in history and current government, said Nancy Haas, professor emeritus at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.
She said the citizenship test wasn’t designed to be an academic measure and if legislators really wanted to impart change, they would have supported teacher training or curriculum development.
“My immediate reaction was that they really didn’t go far enough,” Haas said. “They missed the boat on really promoting civic education in Arizona.”