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Law will require students to pass same civics test as new citizens

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PHOENIX – What is freedom of religion? Who was president during the Great Depression and World War II? How many justices are on the U.S. Supreme Court?

Every Arizona high school student will have to answer those and other civics questions correctly to graduate under legislation signed into law Thursday by Gov. Doug Ducey.

The bill, which Ducey called for in his State of the State Address on Monday, made it from House and Senate committees to the governor’s desk in one day despite objections from some lawmakers and advocates for schools that it constitutes an unfunded mandate.

Dubbed the American Civics Act, the measure will make high school students pass the same civics test required of new citizens with a score of 60 percent or better to gain the social studies credit necessary for graduation.

The change, which will take effect during the 2016-1017 school year, is contained in a bill authored by House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro, R-Avondale.

“The heart of this bill is that every student in Arizona should know basic knowledge and fundamental facts and have an understanding of American government and civics,” Montenegro told members of the House Government and Higher Education Committee, which advanced the measure on a 6-2 vote.

Montenegro cited data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compiled by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, suggesting that two-thirds of students tested below proficiency on the civics portion of tests given in fourth, eighth and 12th grades.

Some lawmakers said they were concerned about the speed with which the bill was being passed and how schools would implement the change.

“One of my concerns about the bill is cost-related as well,” said Rep. John Ackerley, R-Sahuarita. “My concern is on the tail end of it as to data-tracking. I work in a district that struggles immensely with its data information system.”

Joe Thomas, vice president of the Arizona Education Association and a high school social studies teacher, told the House committee he’s concerned about the change’s impact on student retention.

“A test by itself will not drive engagement,” Thomas said. “Activities in the classroom, activities we learned years ago through a program called History Alive, makes history engaging.”

The bill passed the House 42-17, while the Senate passed an identical version 19-10. The versions were then merged.

On the House floor, Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale, said he’s tired of comedians making fun of the nation’s education system. He scoffed at those who complained that the change amounts to an unfunded mandate.

“Google is an unfunded mandate? Give me a break,” he said.