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April 18, 2018

No, Pennsylvania students won't have to pass a citizenship test to graduate

Schools Politics
Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg Rlibrandi/Wikipedia Commons

The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.

Pennsylvania students will soon have to take a new test that measures their basic understanding of American government. But failing it will not affect a student's academic standing, at least according to the revised language of the bill.

In 2016, state Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Allegheny, pushed for legislation that would have required Pennsylvania high school students to pass the a civics test prior to graduation. According to that bill,  the test would have been the same as the civics portion of the naturalization test administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to immigrants applying for citizenship.

Students would've had to answer 60 percent of the questions correctly in order to graduate

The main reason Kortz and other lawmakers have lobbied for the test is a declining knowledge of basic facets of government among Americans. A 2016 survey from Penn, for example, found only about a quarter or respondents could name all three branches of U.S. government. Nearly a third couldn't name any.

Fast forward to 2018. On Wednesday, the House overwhelmingly passed similar legislation co-sponsored by Kortz, with only four members voting no. The big difference, of course, is that the civics test won't be a graduation requirement. Instead, the Pennsylvania Department of Education will have to post data each year showing how students performed on the test, and students who get a passing grade will receive a "certificate of recognition."

Additionally, while schools would have the option to use the federal government's naturalization test, they could also opt for a "locally developed" exam that tests students’ knowledge of American government. The department of education would have to post the 100-question naturalization test on its website as a resource for students and schools.

So, what happened to the graduation requirement? An amendment by Rep. Hal English, R-Allegheny, drastically overhauled the legislation, specifically scrapping the requirement and instead making the test an "assessment of civic knowledge." English wasn't immediately available for comment Wednesday evening. Rep. Karen Boback, R-Lackawanna, was the bill's other main sponsor, along with Kortz. Asked about the change, she only provided a statement lauding the legislation.

“This bill represented a compromise in which vested parties concurred. It will significantly increase civic knowledge among our students and prepare them to be active citizens in our democracy," Boback said.

Through a spokesperson, Kortz said the bill was amended "as the result of a compromise," but did not provide any details on the agreement. 

The legislation now goes to the Senate. If it eventually gets Gov. Tom Wolf's signature, it would be administered to students in grades 7-12 starting with the 2020-21 school year.