Arkansas’ public schools can start administering a civics exam now required for graduation as early as Monday.
The civics exam is identical to the test administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for naturalization purposes. And all high school students — starting with this year’s juniors — are required under Act 478 of 2017 to answer at least 60 of the 100-question test correctly to graduate. Those seeking General Educational Development certificates will also need to pass the exam.
“I think it’s important to have everyone — not just our students coming out of high school — know who we are, how our government works, how our system works,” said Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, who was the lead sponsor of Act 478. “A lot of people are real critical of things, but they don’t a lot of times have a clue of why it works that way and who started it. This is a very important issue, and I’m tickled to death that our kids are going to be a little bit more informed.”
Civics exams had been sweeping the nation for about the past three years, said Jennifer Zinth, the director of high school and science, technology, economics and mathematics, widely known as STEM, at the Education Commission of the States. They gained popularity after some legislators began expressing concerns that high school students were graduating without having foundational knowledge of things like the Declaration of Independence, she said.
Arizona was the first state to enact such requirements of high school graduates in 2015, she said.
Arkansas is now one of 10 states — including Tennessee and Wisconsin — that make its public high school students pass a civics exam to graduate, according to the commission. At least five other states administer the test to its students.
States have varying rules on how many questions students must answer and how many they have to get right.
In Arkansas, the multiple-choice exam will be administered online through a platform called Moodle, said Stacy Smith, assistant commissioner of learning services at the state Department of Education. The test will not cost students or school districts, and any teacher can administer it.
The naturalization test is broken down into nine sections, and schools will have flexibility on how they want to administer it — whether taking all 100 questions in one sitting or splitting up the test into each section. It is not timed.
Students will log on, watch an introductory video and begin answering questions. They will know immediately whether they answer correctly or not.
If they get it wrong, they will go on a “detour” — a remediation, of sorts, such as a video or an article covering the matter of the question, Smith said. The students will then be redirected to the same question for a second shot, and if they answer incorrectly again, it will be marked as such.
Students will be able to take the exam more than once should they not pass.
“What we want to tell schools is ‘this is not the ACT Aspire. This is not the ACT. This is an exam, and we want you to treat it as such,” Smith said. “Any accommodations that you would provide for students in your classrooms for any other exam that you give, we would expect you to do the same here.”
A lot of schools have been eager to get started, Smith said, but the department wanted to get the exam on the online platform as an “ease” of knowing that a student has passed.
High school students currently enrolled in civics this school year and any current juniors can take the exam this year. Next year’s requirements are similar but they also call for any juniors and seniors who have not taken the exam to do so.
The state Board of Education passed the guidelines for the exam on Thursday.
A handful of board members praised the department for having the remedial component within the test. Teacher of the Year Courtney Cochran said she was concerned that current freshmen, sophomores or juniors may have taken civics in the fall semester, prompting teachers to ditch curriculum and review for the exam.
“Will students have to take some time to probably study, to look at, to refresh?” Smith replied. “Yes. Will schools have to make a plan to how are we going to meet our juniors right now? Are they going to do that in a specific classroom? I think there are some things that we can do that won’t be so intrusive, but in no way do we want this to become the civics class for curriculum in our high schools.”
Board chairman Jay Barth said the department had “adapted as elegantly as possible” to the law.
“As someone who … teaches civics everyday, I just have deep concerns about whether this is the way to do civics education,” said Barth, a professor at Hendrix College. “I think there unquestionably is a basic knowledge component to the understanding of civics, but there is also a component of civics that’s really about deeper learning and thinking more critically about these mechanisms of democracy.”
He said he also feared that civics curriculum would change in a way that would lean more toward memorization of the facts on the civics exam, rather than the deeper learning, because it is a “high-stakes” test.
Some school districts had already begun preparations.
Bobette Ray, the program administrator for English and social studies in the Pulaski County Special School District, said her school system planned to do a review for its juniors this year before allowing them to take the exam.
As the district transitions, Ray said it would offer civics and economics — now a ninth-grade course — to its high school juniors.
“A majority of the social studies teachers in our district are in favor of moving those courses,” she said. “It just seems more age-appropriate for juniors, who are working and will soon become voting age.”
District teachers already use the naturalization exam as a pre- and post-test for students in that course, and they were not concerned about students failing it, Ray said.