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Students could face citizenship test in Pennsylvania

Natasha Lindstrom
| Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, 11:21 p.m.

Pennsylvania students who can't name an American Indian tribe, the war during which Dwight D. Eisenhower was a general, or the territory the U.S. bought from France in 1803 could find it tougher to get a high school diploma, under a proposal debated Monday in Harrisburg.

"Adding another test is not the answer," Jerry Oleksiak, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, told lawmakers during a joint hearing of the House education and veterans affairs committees.

"Good education cannot be reduced to an exit test."

State lawmakers and veterans advocates clashed with education officials on whether Pennsylvania should glom onto the latest national trend in standardized testing: requiring students to pass a U.S. citizenship exam in order to graduate from high school.

"It very much has bipartisan support," said House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Stan Saylor, a York County Republican, noting he hasn't yet decided when to call the proposed legislation for a vote. "Politicians, in particular, are getting frustrated with people who don't vote and people who don't seem to understand how government works."

State Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg, told the educational testifiers — including representatives of school boards and administrators — that he was "very disappointed" in their "vehement opposition" to the bill he co-introduced with Luzerne County Republican Karen Boback.

"We feel very strongly that people should know who the president of the United States is, who George Washington was, how many states there are in this nation," said Kortz, noting he's open to "tweaks" in the bill's language. As it stands, the proposal has the backing of 47 co-sponsors.

"You may be teaching some of this ... but some students aren't grasping it," Kortz continued. "They don't know the rules. They don't show up to vote. We've got to start somewhere, and we've got to start with our students."

House Bill 1858 would require all public schools — including charters and cybercharters — to administer to students the same 100-question test used by Homeland Security's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, starting in 2020-21. If approved, passing the test would be a requirement to obtain a high school diploma or GED equivalency.

"If we require immigrants going through the legal process of becoming Americans to pass an examination about citizenship, why would we not make sure our (high school) graduates have the same knowledge?" argued Veterans of Foreign Wars State Commander Thomas A. Brown.

"Let's give them knowledge that inspires public servants and develops patriotic hearts."

Some of the test's questions are pretty basic — such as, why does the American flag have 50 stars; name a state that borders Mexico; and what is the name of the U.S. president.

Others might not be so easy — or have has as clear-cut answers — such as: what does the president's cabinet do; what is the economic system in the U.S.; and who is the "Father of our Country."

Education officials stressed that another testing mandate would burden districts while taking time away from the classroom, where they say civics education already is happening.

Before advancing the civics-test bill, Saylor acknowledged, lawmakers first must deal with limbo confronting existing high school exit exams.

In February, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a two-year hold on requiring high school students to pass the Keystone Exams, Common Core-based exit tests covering algebra, history and literature that have been in the works for several years. Prior to political gridlock over what to do about them, the Keystones series was set to roll out its own civics portion.

The citizenship test proposal, meanwhile, has garnered support from some of the same lawmakers who opposed the Keystone Exams.

High school civics testing laws have sprung up in statehouses around the country, spurred by the relatively nascent, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based nonprofit lobbying group, Civics Education Initiative. Its board of advisers boasts prominent figures from both sides of the political aisle and beyond, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Carl Bernstein; and Richard Riley, who was U.S. education secretary under President Bill Clinton.

Since Arizona passed the first such mandate in 2015, 14 states have adopted civics test requirements and 22 have considered doing so, the initiative reports.

The lobby group aims to get all 50 states to add a civics test requirement by Sept. 17, 2017 — the 230th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.

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