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PHOENIX — Arizona on Thursday became the first state in the nation to pass a law requiring high school students to pass a civics exam before graduation.
The swift action by the Arizona Legislature comes as states around the country take up similar measures. The proposal requires high school students to correctly answer 60 of 100 questions on the civics portion of the U.S. citizenship test.
The test is being pushed nationally by the Scottsdale-based Joe Foss Institute, which has set a goal of having all 50 states adopt it by 2017, the 230th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. The institute says legislatures in 15 states are expected to consider it this year.
Critics questioned the message the bill sends at a time when Arizona is facing a deficit and education funding crisis.
Both the House and Senate quickly passed the bill at the beginning of the legislative session, and the newly elected Republican governor, Doug Ducey, has said he will sign it.
The North Dakota House of Representatives overwhelming approved the same measure Thursday, but Arizona's is expected to be the first pass a full Legislature.
Ducey called on the Legislature to make the civics test the first bill to hit his desk as governor. He said studies show that students don't know enough about basic government to grow into effective citizens.
"These are our children, and not long from now, it will be for them to vote on who sits in your chairs and who stands at this podium," Ducey said in his State of the state address Monday.
"How can we expect them to protect the principles on which this country was founded, if we are not preparing them for that task right now?" Republican Senate Majority Leader Steve Yarbrough, sponsoring the bill in his chamber, called the test a needed measure.
"Requiring that students pass this test is not by any means a silver bullet, but I think is a step, a small step forward," he said. "And I think we need to encourage the people of America to become more aware of the values of America."
The lone Democratic senator who opposed the bill on the education committee, David Bradley, said passing the test would do nothing to make good citizens. He said that despite the bill sponsors' promises, there is a cost to the state.
Bradley also said that "this is not the end-all be-all to citizenship and it doesn't get us any further down the road."
A high school government teacher, Joe Thomas of Mesa, said he was concerned that having students take a 100-question test would take up an entire class period and is not an effective way of getting students engaged in civics. He said the test is will require rote memorization rather than something that promotes critical thinking.
"The interest is promoting civics and we want to see students engaged," Thomas said. "I don't know if a test engages students."