New legislation may require Utah high school students to pass a citizenship test in order to graduate. After receiving approval from the Senate in a vote of 20-8, the bill is in its final stages in the House of Representatives.
Introduced by Sen. Howard Stephenson (R-Draper), the bill would require students to answer 50 questions on American Government and get 75 percent correct before receiving a high school diploma. The test would be similar to a citizenship test, which requires knowledge of principles of American Government, American History and Integrated Civics. However, citizenship tests only require a minimum score of 60 percent.
“Our bill was amended in committee because 60 percent was thought to be too low,” Stephenson explained.
The bill received some criticism during its time in the Senate. Opponents of the bill have expressed concern about adding another hurdle for students struggling to graduate. Utah high school students are currently required to take courses in US History and Government, as well as civics.
Mountain View High School student body officer Samantha Steele says she has benefited more from the civics course than she would from a test.
“What we have now is enough to inform students because I feel like if we make them take a test, then it’s gonna be one of those things where students just cram the night before or something,” Steele said. “But this way, where we have to take a semester for it, we get more involved. We learn more over a period of time, and it just kind of gives you that time to let it sink in and whatnot.”
Zac Spencer is also a student body officer at Mountain View High School. He believes knowing the civics course material is essential to good citizenship. Spencer says he greatly benefited from the course.
“I loved it,” he said. “I thought my teacher was amazing and informed me about everything I needed to know to help me with college and with life after high school.”
While Steele and Spencer agree that civics knowledge is important, they don’t think most of their peers could pass the civics exam.
According to a survey conducted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the average high school graduate cannot pass the citizenship test. A test of about 2,500 adults showed high school graduates scored 44 percent, and college graduates also failed at 57 percent.
A study by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement shows that roughly half of young Americans who do not vote are consistently poorer and less educated than their peers who do vote.
The US Census studied the voting rates of different age groups between the years of 1964 and 2012. The study says, “In every presidential elections since 1964, young voters between the ages of 18 and 24 have consistently voted at lower rates than all other age groups.” Since 1964, the age group’s rates have dropped from about 51 percent to 38 percent.
Utah State University Student Advocate Casey Saxton says there is a severe lack of student interest in government.
“I see a lot of voter apathy on campus,” Saxton said. “I think the problem is people don’t understand the impact that government has in our lives, whether that’s local government, state government or national government. And if they understood that a little bit more, I think society would come a long way.”
Saxton agrees that reinforcing civics knowledge in high school will decrease voter apathy.
The bill to require the civics test received a favorable recommendation from the House Education Committee on Monday. If the House passes the legislation, it will need final approval from Gov. Gary Herbert. Herbert has previously emphasized the importance of civics education in Utah schools, but has not disclosed whether he supports the legislation.
The bill would be effective on July 1, 2015.