PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona became the first state in the nation on Thursday to enact a law requiring high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship test on civics before graduation, giving a boost to a growing nationwide effort to boost civics education.
Both the Arizona House and Senate quickly passed the legislation on just the fourth day of the legislative session, and newly elected Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed it into law Thursday evening.
The swift action in Arizona comes as states around the country take up similar measures. Arizona’s law requires high school students to correctly answer 60 of 100 questions on the civics portion of the test new citizens must pass.
The test is being pushed nationally by the Arizona-based Joe Foss Institute, which has set a goal of having all 50 states adopt it by 2017, the 230th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. The institute says legislatures in 15 states are expected to consider it this year.
The Foss Institute, whose motto is “Patriotism Matters,” has created a civics institute to promote the test to state legislatures as a way to increase the understanding of basic government by students, with the hope they will be better prepared to be engaged citizens.
Institute president Frank Riggs, a former California congressman who ran for Arizona governor as a Republican last year, said the testing initiative seeks “to ensure the delivery the very basics civics education that every high school graduate should have.”
Joe Foss is a former South Dakota governor and won the Medal of Honor during World War II. He died in 2003.
The North Dakota House of Representatives overwhelming approved the same measure Thursday.
The Arizona law requires students to correctly answer 60 of 100 test questions before they can earn a high school or GED diploma starting in the 2016-2017 school year.
Critics question whether the test, which relies on memorization, is the best way to engage students in civics education.
Ducey had urged the Legislature to make the civics test the first bill to hit his desk as governor. He said studies show that students don’t know enough about basic government to grow into effective citizens.
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, an Arizona native, has supported the initiative. She’s made civics education a prime focus in recent years.
Republican Arizona Senate Majority Leader Steve Yarbrough, sponsoring the bill in his chamber, said that “requiring that students pass this test is not by any means a silver bullet, but I think is a step, a small step forward.”
“And I think we need to encourage the people of America to become more aware of the values of America,” Yarbrough said.
A Democratic senator who opposed the bill, David Bradley, said the test would do nothing to make good citizens.
“My point now is tests don’t make citizens, citizens are tested by their actions,” Bradley said.
Joe Thomas of Mesa, a high school government teacher, said he was concerned that having students take a 100-question test would take up an entire class period and will not be an effective way of getting students engaged in civics. He said the test is will require rote memorization rather than something that promotes critical thinking.
“The interest is promoting civics and we want to see students engaged,” Thomas said. “I don’t know if a test engages students.”