An Educator’s Take on the Civics Test

can_you_pass_an_8th_grade_civics_testArizona passed a law last year called the American Civics Act. It sounds real noble: All students must demonstrate knowledge of civics — facts about history and government — in order to graduate from high school.

Arizona is a trendsetter. A pioneer in the wilderness of American education. Already, the push is on for other states to enact similar laws.

The logic went like this. People should be more knowledgeable about history and government. New citizens must take a “naturalization” test demonstrating some basic knowledge about America. Shouldn’t our high school students demonstrate the same basic knowledge?


Who knew? All of this time, the failures in our education system, the problem of uninformed citizens, low voter turnout…

All we needed was a 100 question multiple choice test.

Because it includes all the essentials of civics, like: “What year was the constitution written?” and “What is one of the longest rivers in the U.S?

Other questions are mind-numbing: “Who was the first president?” Or insultingly simplistic: “What did Martin Luther King Jr. do?”

And thank God they included this question: “What is the deadline for filing federal income tax forms?” I mean, how have Americans been paying taxes all these years without having been held accountable by this test?

We don’t want to create a barrier to high school graduation, though. So you pass if you score 60%. You can re-take the test as many times as you need. No problem.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, an advocate of the law, was thrilled when a 16-year old developed a study app for the test. Real innovation, and an important tool to help students graduate from high school.

Except that the test itself is online. The first link when you google “Arizona Civics Test” is a link to the actual test and the answers.

The reality on the ground here in schools is that the civics test is a complete joke. It serves the dual purpose of wasting instruction time from the very subjects you pretend to care about, and forcing underpaid, overworked educators to print, proctor, grade, and document the scores for all students.

Here’s a more serious 60% figure for you. Beginning last school year, 60% of Arizona public schools reported unfilled teaching spots. There is a shortage of teachers in this state.

The main reasons people don’t go into teaching, or leave teaching after a short stint:

  1. Low pay, high stress
  2. Lack of respect, lack of support
  3. Forcing us to do meager tasks that don’t improve learning

I work at an Arizona public charter high school. By law I am qualified to teach government and American history. Students are required to pass both classes to graduate. There are already state standards on what should be taught.

Based on professional experience, I believe the civics test will have approximately zero impact on student learning. I would wage decent money that, measured at any time after graduation day, the class of 2016, who didn’t take the test, would demonstrate the same understanding of civics as the class of 2017, who will.

Even if the measure of “understanding” was the same crappy 100 question multiple choice test.

Looking Forward in the Age of Trump

flag-wildernessFeeling some solace this morning in the wake of a seismic result in the 2016 presidential election.

First, grateful on Veterans Day for the courage of those willing to suit up and face danger on everyone’s behalf.

I don’t agree with lots of war-making decisions. Hate the reality of war. Wish we had an education force as dynamic and well funded as our military.

Our troops don’t make those choices. They are ready and willing when called upon. Thankful and indebted to them.

Forcing myself to see perspective this morning:

  • If Clinton had won, the other half of the country would be equally horrified and pissed off.
  • Lots of people who voted for Clinton weren’t too happy about voting for Clinton.
  • Lots of Veterans voted Trump.
  • Lots of all kinds of decent people voted Trump.

A good quote I read in the Economist said that Trump voters “took him seriously but not literally, even as his critics took him literally, but not seriously.”

Perhaps the vote can be interpreted as a rejection of the establishment, not as an endorsement of specific proposals. There is hope that rhetoric is rhetoric, and governing will be different.

There are some signs for optimism:

  • The proposed Muslim ban has already been removed from the Trump website.
  • Sheriff Joe Arpaio was voted out of office here in Maricopa County.
  • Despite the Trump victory, most Americans oppose a border wall and mass deportations.
  • More than half of Americans voted against Trump.

Those targeted by rhetoric, though, have the right to be upset and fearful.

Grateful for the reflective attitude of my students this week. My students felt a need to express themselves, but rejected the logic of the week’s walkouts, protests, and rioting. That won’t change anything. The fight to support DACA, the fight to support the DREAM Act– those fights will make a difference in their lives. Proud of my students for recognizing this and challenging each other in heartfelt discussions.

So it goes. Not happy that the voice of the right-leaning anti-establishment movement is an impulsive reality TV show host who hates reading, stokes racist fears, and preys on women. Not happy this person will be the President of the United States.

But this is our reality, and everyone must respond vigilantly as their conscience requires.

It’s hard to imagine  right now, but I believe that unity will emerge with time. I’m hopeful for building stronger communities as a result, and can already sense that happening among my students.

The President does not, and need not define us.