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Eliminate civics exam? Only if we can spur interest in actual civics

February 7, 2020

Originally published on UtahPolicy.com.

Utah has work to do in civics education. Much like the rest of the nation.

Less than half of Utah adults can pass a test with basic American history questions. And, except for select increases due to the 2018 races and initiatives, Utah voter participation has been on the decline for decades, ranking 39th in the nation for voter turnout.

So it may come as a surprise that on Monday the House Education Standing Committee unanimously passed a bill to eliminate the civics test required for high school graduation.

In 2015 Utah mandated that in order to graduate from high school, students had to pass what is basically the U.S. naturalization test. The hope was that the test would encourage a baseline understanding and appreciation of our government. Many are skeptical that it is meeting that objective and are now moving to eliminate it.

Critics of the civics test requirement rightly acknowledge that passing the multiple choice exam does not create passionate, informed, or active civic participants. That’s no surprise, since tests are rarely the gateway to increased interest in a subject. And because the test doesn’t seem to be aligned with what happens in the classroom, it feels like a hoop to jump through for students and yet another burden for teachers. And in the worst case, it can send the message that civics is a classroom/test topic rather than a living, vibrant set of habits and attitudes.

But there is a deeper question at play with HB 152 Civic Education Testing Requirement: Would repealing the test requirement be a step in the right direction or the wrong one for Utah civics education?

The answer is that it depends on what comes next.

While the criticisms of the state civics test have merit, if HB 152 succeeds in only removing the civics test, then it’s a step in the wrong direction. While the civics test does not create meaningful civic participation, neither does eliminating it. If we eliminate the civics test without including measures for further study of Utah’s underwhelming civics understanding and participation and how civics education can help strengthen it, we will have made the problem worse by sending the message that it isn’t a problem at all.

We need to do more.

If HB 152 repealed the test but also pivoted Utah into a robust discussion about innovative ideas to improve the problems we’re facing, then it might be the wake-up call that we need. In fact, if the bill springboards school and state leaders into a brainstorm about increased service learning projects, “action civics” opportunities, or mock governmental experiences, then the bill may end up giving life to civics education rather than killing the bare minimum represented by the civics test.

In reality, there ought to be no other subject more appealing to secondary students – who currently wield only partial control in their lives – than to learn about their ability to change the world in which they live by participating in government and community. Civics should be inherently important and exciting to this age group. But it isn’t.

Why?

Because we don’t treat it that way.

We require a semester of U.S. Government & Citizenship and then create and eliminate tests. If we want to take seriously the charge to create an informed citizenry that can keep our republic alive, then Utah needs an honest discussion about our goals in civics education, followed by sustained public opportunities to hash out innovative ways to move toward those goals.

As for the effort to remove the civics test requirement, the bill is as beneficial to Utah’s civics education as the conversation it sparks going forward.

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