Utah high schoolers might not have to take a civics test to graduate anymore

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Canyons School District Teacher of the Year Jessica Beus in her classroom at Midvale Elementary on Wednesday April 24, 2019.

In 2015, Utah legislators voted to require public high school students to pass a basic civics test before graduating, with the bill’s sponsor arguing that it would “create a sense of pride in every student” to face the same questions on American government as an immigrant earning citizenship status.

But on Monday, a legislative committee voted unanimously to repeal that graduation requirement, with lawmakers openly deriding the test as a pointless, and potentially detrimental, academic exercise.

“They aren’t in there learning,” said Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City. “They’re aren’t in there becoming more engaged citizens. They’re just getting it out of the way.”

Weight, a former educator who is sponsoring the repeal legislation, told members of the House Education Committee that the civics test has stood apart from traditional history and social studies courses, at least one semester of which is also required for high school graduation.

Students are expected to complete the civics test at some point between their eighth grade and senior years, Weight said, and have the ability to retake the test as many times as necessary to pass, with no penalty for failed attempts.

Weight praised the state’s move in recent years to new social studies curriculum standards that emphasize critical analysis and engagement over the memorization of facts. But she added that in talking with students about her bill, most either did not remember ever taking the civics test or described a last-minute scramble to check that box on the path to graduation.

“They just think it’s a game and they think it’s stupid,” Weight said, “and they tell me that.”

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said the test requirement is a classic example of how academic subjects lose meaning when they’re watered down and not incorporated into classroom instruction.

She also suggested it was the product of well-meaning lawmakers who believe they have insight into public education, but who fail to take the perspective of classroom educators into account.

“There’s nothing, I think, that makes students have disdain for education and its purpose [more] than when they believe that something they’re doing has no meaning,” Moss said.

Jay Blain, director of policy and research for the Utah Education Association, said the teachers he has spoken to are supportive of repealing the testing requirement. The test doesn’t measure knowledge or learning, Blain said, beyond a student’s ability to temporarily retain flash-card facts.

“They pass the test and then that knowledge is gone,” Blain said.

And Ben Horsley, a spokesman for Granite School District, said the intent of the original legislation was “noble.” But it was implemented in a way that detracts from real learning.

“Rote memorization does not equal deep-seated appreciation for our civics program and for the founding of our country,” Horsley said.

Committee chairman Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, remarked that he couldn’t remember if he voted for the original legislation in 2015 — he did — but that he appreciated Weight for sponsoring the repeal. He said the state has an elected school board that is meant to address issues like curriculum standards and graduation requirements, and that lawmakers should have confidence in them to fill that role.

“Our school system in this state works best when we stay in our lanes,” Snow said.

The repeal bill, HB152, will now move to the full House for consideration.