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For Pa. students, a new duty: civics test

Gov. Wolf is poised to sign a bill that would require public schools to administer a civics exam to graduating seniors, as well as middle school and other high school students. Passing the exam would not be a graduation requirement, but schools would be required to report exam scores to the state. School districts would have wide berth in crafting questions for this exam.

Civics lesson: This is where the U.S. legislative branch meets in Washington. Seen at dawn.
Civics lesson: This is where the U.S. legislative branch meets in Washington. Seen at dawn. Read moreJ. Scott Applewhite

HARRISBURG — They wouldn't have to pass it, but students would be required to take a civics test before high school graduation under a bill that could soon become law in Pennsylvania.

Ignited by a report that only 26 percent of adults can identify the three branches of the U.S. government, according to the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center 2016 survey, Rep. Karen Boback (R., Luzerne) said she wrote the bill to help ensure that youths become knowledgeable.

"The need for increased civics education is warranted given the astounding lack of proficiency in U.S. civics and government," Boback said in a statement Thursday, citing national studies reporting only 24 percent of U.S. high school students are proficient in civics.

The new test, which Democratic Gov. Wolf said he would sign, would be separate from the state's academic standards for civics and government, which lay out what students in specific grades should know about the mechanics of government and the rights of citizenship. School districts can meet that requirement in a variety of ways, said John M. Callahan, chief advocacy officer at the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

The new civics test would take effect in the 2020-21 school year — a year after a requirement is slated to go into effect that students pass the Keystone exams before graduating from high school. (Wolf  delayed the graduation requirement until the 2019-20 school year.) The Keystone exams test a variety of subjects, including algebra and literature, according to the state Department of Education's website.

Boback's bill would allow schools to determine when to administer the civics test, as long as it's done at least once between seventh and 12th grades. The test could be developed locally by a school district, or districts could use one developed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Students who earn a perfect score on the new test would receive a certificate of recognition from the Education Department.

Boback's bill passed handily in the House of Representatives — and unanimously in the Senate — this week. However, some who voted against the bill, such as Rep. Mary Jo Daley (D., Montgomery), said they have lingering questions.

In an interview Thursday, Daley said she was not convinced that a new test is the best way of addressing concern about ignorance of how government works.

"One of our members raised concerns that we're not doing a great job teaching the history of our country, including a lot of the groups that we don't talk about at all and their part in history," she said. "[We're] talking about African Americans, about Asians, and about different religions."

Contact Lasherica Thornton at