Our view: Is mandated civics test a good idea?

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Should our public school students graduate from high school with a clear understanding of American government and civics? Well, duh. Of course they should. In theory, they already do. The state department of education’s Academic Standards for Civics and Government are quite lengthy.

Should students have to take a state-mandated test to show whether they learned those lessons and are prepared to be good, well-informed citizens? Seems reasonable.

Should we expect them to get a perfect score on the test?

Could you?

Without reaching for your smart phone, do you know who is third in the line of succession for the presidency? How many amendments there are to the U.S. Constitution? What year the Constitution was written? If, in the middle of test crunch time, you were given a multiple choice question on the number of U.S. Representatives that included 435 and 453 as possible answers, are you sure you wouldn’t (accidentally) pick the wrong one?

Those are four of 100 possible questions on the U.S. Citizenship test. Those hoping to become citizens are asked up to 10 of the 100 questions and must get six correct. It is relevant because this week a bill passed both the state house and senate and landed on Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk mandating a new civics test be administered at some point in grades 7 through 12.

The bill, first introduced by Harvey’s Lake Republican Rep. Karen Boback with a boatload of bipartisan co-sponsors, requires districts to either develop a local civics test or use the federal Citizenship and Immigration Services Test. Students don’t have to pass it to graduate, but they can earn a state certificate.

Boback’s bill, which passed the house in April by 191-4, awarded the certificate if students got a passing grade on the test. The Senate revised it to require a perfect score for the certificate, and the house accepted that revision.

The bill comes at an odd moment. Wolf just cut the amount of time students spend taking state standardized tests. The state had already seriously curbed the importance — and planned expansion — of the “Keystone Exams” once envisioned as a series of must-pass tests for a high school degree. And state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has announced a review of the lack of transparency in state contracts for standardized testing: $1.3 billion in the last decade, much of it through no-bid extensions of existing contracts.

In those circumstances, this can feel like another unfunded mandate. But few would argue against a sincere effort to assure our graduates understand the government and what it takes to be a good citizen. The real sticking point is that requirement of a perfect score in order to be certified by the state as having a sufficient grasp of said knowledge.

If that’s the benchmark, the legislature should vote one more time on this bill. But first, they should take a civics test. If you don’t get a perfect score, you have to vote against it in it’s current form.

It’s not a “gotcha.” It’s just sauce for the proverbial goose.

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