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Lawmaker: High school students should pass citizenship test before graduating

Lucian Spataro, president of the Joe Foss Institute, details what students would need to know about civics to graduate from high school under a plan his organization is pushing. Rep. Steve Montenegro, right, is going to sponsor the legislation this coming year.  (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Lucian Spataro, president of the Joe Foss Institute, details what students would need to know about civics to graduate from high school under a plan his organization is pushing. Rep. Steve Montenegro, right, is going to sponsor the legislation this coming year. (Capitol Media Services
photo by Howard Fischer)

Arizona high schoolers who can’t name at least one branch of government, define the United States as a capitalist country or at least know Phoenix is the state capitol could find themselves denied a diploma.

Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, is crafting legislation to make passage of the same test given to those who want to become citizens a requirement to graduate. He said that means getting at least 60 questions right on the 100-item test, or at least scoring 60 percent on some random subset.

But there won’t be any new money made available for schools. Lucian Spataro, president of the Joe Foss Institute which is pushing this plan nationwide, said that’s not really necessary, as students already are supposed to be being taught basic civics.

And as important as Montenegro says this knowledge is, he won’t make getting a passing grade a requirement for those, like himself, who actually make the laws in Arizona.

The legislation was unveiled Wednesday on the 227th anniversary of the majority of the delegates signing the U.S. Constitution. But Spataro said the problem it seeks to address has been a long time coming in what he called the “perfect storm of changing academic emphasis.”

“Civics and social studies and history are being boxed out of the classroom to some extent,” he said.

“What we have is a very narrow curriculum right now focused on science, technology, engineering and math, which is really important stuff, but not so important that you don’t need to know how to run the country,” Spataro said. “Or learn how the country operates. Or vote.”

Montenegro said more than 96 percent of a sample group of high schoolers in Arizona and Oklahoma given the test failed to get a passing grade.

“This is unacceptable,” he said. “How can we, the people, maintain our unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, rights that so many Americans have fought and died for, if we’re ignorant of these facts?”

The move is, in some ways, a reversal of course for Arizona students.

Lawmakers already have voted to eliminate the requirement that students pass the math, reading and writing portions of Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards. The Class of 2016 is the last that will have to pass any specific test to get a diploma.

At the same time, the state Board of Education has imposed new mandates on public schools. Now, students need four credits each of English and math, three each of social studies and science, and one of either fine arts or career and technical education.

But Spataro said he sees no problem with adding the test. He said the cost to schools should be minimal, especially with the test already having been made up by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“These questions and this content is already being taught in schools in schools today,” Spataro said. The social studies mandate specifically includes one credit of American history, including state history, and one-half credit of American government, including Arizona government.

Anyway, Montenegro said, it’s not like the test is all that hard.

He cited figures that more than 90 percent of immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship pass the test on the first try. And Montenegro said there are all sorts of study aids, like flash cards with questions on one side and answers on the other.

“It’s not rocket science,” said Montenegro, who was born in El Salvador and came here at age six, saying his own family had to take the test six years later to qualify them – and him – for citizenship.

“It’s basic questions of governance: How many justices sit on the Supreme Court?” he continued. “What does the Constitution stand for? It’s the supreme law of the land. Who do these rights apply to? Americans, people that live in the country.”

But as basic as Montenegro said the questions are, he said he would not mandate that elected state officials show they can answer them before being allowed to take office.

“Our focus right now is our kids,” he said.

“This is about patriotism,” Montenegro said. “This is something we want to install in our kids.”

5 comments

  1. I think the state legislators should have a required test on state and federal government before they are allowed to take their seat in the legislature. Maybe a few essay questions too, like “How does proposed legislation become law?”

  2. Alan Oberlender, possibly a future Arizonian

    Ironically, and, gosh, it happens, I know, the reporting author misspelled the intended term capital, confusing it with “capitol,” in his opening paragraph of an otherwise great piece. The distinction between the city, such as Phoenix, in which the capitol houses the legislature, and such building in the capital city would make a fine question, I’d suggest, on such a proposed test. Also, a provision requiring newly elected legislators answer 100 questions correctly out of 100 asked as a necessary and final hurdle before being sworn in to legislate, might prove a sensible, inspiring, and lasting testimony to the state’s commitment to reestablish the merit and importance of civics for its freshly minted high school graduates aspiring to adulthood, and citizens all of a free and responsibility-promoting republic.

  3. Important Correction: Yes, first things being first, please read my faulty attempt to spell correctly as . . . Arizonan. A little late, I got it now, going forward.

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