SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert on Monday signed a bill into law that will require Utah students to pass a citizenship naturalization test before receiving a high school diploma.
The bill was signed less than two weeks after Herbert signed a resolution asking state education leaders to look at ways to reduce student assessment, particularly high-stakes testing.
The result is a measure of confusion and frustration for educators.
"How interesting is it that at the same time (the Legislature is) adding a test, they pass a resolution to reduce tests," said Judy Park, associate superintendent at the Utah State Office of Education. "I think the unfortunate consequence is this has now placed a huge burden on teachers, on classrooms, on instruction that could be very disruptive."
SB60 originally proposed having students answer all 100 questions from the same test immigrants are required to pass before becoming U.S. citizens. But the bill was amended to require students to answer correctly 35 out of 50 questions identical to questions on the naturalization test.
The test could be administered to students as young as sixth grade, but they can take it as many times as necessary to get a passing score of 70 percent. Park said she was "pretty confident" it would be a paper-and-pencil test.
The requirement will apply to all students graduating on or after Jan. 1, 2016.
The bill did not provide funding for developing, administering or scoring the test, so involvement from state education leaders will be minimal, Park said. Local school districts and charters will decide individually whether to let students take the test all at once or one piece at a time.
Some lawmakers say the burden for students and teachers will be minimal because the concepts in the test are already being taught, and the test questions and answers are already available online.
"I believe this bill will create a sense of pride in every student who graduates," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said while defending it in the Senate. He said initiative will "ensure that every citizen who graduates from Utah high schools is prepared to have a basic understanding to be a more involved citizen and a more informed voter."
The governor signed HCR7 on March 20, commissioning a study of Utah's current testing methods to see how "excessive" testing can be minimized. It's unclear what implications the resolution has for the civics test, but it's unlikely the test will be fully implemented before the study is complete.
"I think the timing's off a little bit, but certainly you don't need to collect data to get a sense of the disruption this (test) has the potential to cause," Park said.
Shawn McLeod, principal of South Jordan Middle School, said the test is one that "many" kids could pass and has important facts for students to know. But it presents yet another requirement for graduation that may give students stress.
"I think having that knowledge base is important. As a parent, I would want my child to know that information," McLeod said. "I think we do assess our kids a lot. It's becoming more and more high-stakes assessments as well. … It's one more added assessment, one more added stress."
Educators agree, however, that a strong emphasis on civics education is needed to prepare students to become active members of their community. Robert Austin, a K-12 social studies specialist with the Utah State Office of Education, said he hopes the test will begin a discussion about "cognitive rigor" beyond simply memorizing facts.
"The immediate outcome for schools is just the kinds of robust conversations that we need to have about what does it mean to be civically competent," Austin said. "Not every student's going to be a scientist, and not every student's going to be a mathematician. But we know that every student will have the rights and responsibility of citizenship."
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