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Proposal requires passing civics test to get high school diploma

(Photo: Jnn13 / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0 / MGN)

Oregon lawmakers continued their push to have a society of better-informed citizens by debating a bill Tuesday that would require students to pass a civics test before they could graduate high school.

Senate Bill 1038 is just the latest in a handful of bills being considered by legislators this year that are aimed at trying to increase civics knowledge among the citizenry.

Before they could receive a high school diploma, students would need to pass -- with a 60-percent or better score -- the naturalization test used by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The test has 100 multiple choice questions.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Chuck Riley, D-Hillsboro. But it was requested by former Sen. Bruce Starr, a Republican who Riley unseated in 2014.

“I think we’ve all seen those embarrassing man-on-the-street interviews on late-night TV, where Americans can’t answer basic questions about our government and who we are as a nation,” Starr testified before the Senate Education Committee at the Capitol in Salem.

While most agree the goal is laudable, committee member Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, expressed concern that such a requirement would disadvantage students with disabilities or English language learners.

“Would it really be fair to deny a student a high-school diploma and kind of lock them into a lifetime of poverty, because they couldn’t pass an additional test?” she said.

Starr countered that there would be no limit to how many times the test could be taken and said he believed that students would eventually pass it. He also suggested the bill could be tweaked to accommodate students with special needs.

Some critics also expressed concerns that such an endeavor would be out of a school district’s control and could be an unfunded mandate.

Earlier in this year’s legislative session, Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, introduced two bills aimed at encouraging school districts to offer civics and financial educational opportunities for students. His bills have passed the House and are awaiting consideration in the Senate.

Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, introduced a bill to require students to demonstrate proficiency in civics before they could graduate high school.

House Bill 2691 had a public hearing, but so far it has not advanced.

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