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Bill seeks to improve civic engagement among students



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SALT LAKE CITY — When Lorena Riffo-Jenson votes in an election, she takes her daughters with her to the polls, hoping they will learn from the same example that she saw in her mother.

For Riffo-Jenson, who immigrated to the United States with her family from Chile at age 13, civic engagement has been and always will be a family affair.

"In order for any of us to be part of our community, our country, our nation, we must know the basics," she said. "I think for me, what's important is that we generate a discussion about the importance of being involved, that young people fully understand that this is their government."

On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee unanimously recommended a bill for Senate approval that seeks to do just that.

Under SB60, before public education students receive a high school diploma, they would be required to pass the same test immigrants must take to become naturalized U.S. citizens. The same would be required of Utahns earning a GED.

Bill sponsor Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said the requirement would begin to address a "crisis" of civic apathy and ignorance among young people as they transition to adulthood.

"We are living in a nation where we believe so strongly in our right and obligation to vote," Stephenson said. "And yet what we find is that most citizens cannot name the three branches of the government.

"I believe that liberty doesn't necessarily mean that we have to win it through war, but we certainly have to win it through knowledge," he said.

Jonathan Johnson, chairman of Overstock.com and the Promote Liberty PAC, and co-chairman of Utah's Civics Education Initiative, said the bill would help students gain the knowledge upon which they can build a stronger interest in the workings of their community.

"It's not the end-all solution, but I think that by memorizing these basic facts about our civics, we're providing our students with the building blocks that they need to do further thinking and analysis in their role in government," Johnson said.

The bill would require students to pass with a score of at least 60 percent — the same passing score for immigrants. It would give flexibility to state and district school boards to administer the test 10 questions at a time in class, have students take the test on their own online, or anywhere in between at any age before graduation.

Stephenson emphasized that the bill wouldn't pose an additional burden for teachers, and the test itself shouldn't dictate how social studies classes are taught.

Instead, students would use testing materials already available in 50 languages as they prepare for the test. And if students don't pass, they can retake the test as many times as necessary.

"This should not become part of a curriculum mandate," Stephenson said. "If students aren't learning these things already as a matter of our public education, then shame on us. But I don't want to have this dictate anything that's going on in the classroom. I would rather have it be something that students prepare for on their own."

Sydnee Dickson, deputy superintendent of the Utah State Office of Education, said the Legislature should also consider letting educators develop their own questions that go deeper than what is covered in the test. Instead of asking what the first 10 amendments are called, for example, teachers could ask: Why did so many founders feel it was essential to add the first 10 amendments?

"Are we emphasizing memorization or a deep understanding?" Dickson asked.

Riffo-Jenson said she hopes the test will help parents encourage their children to be more civically engaged.

"Your family really is where the discussion should take place," she said. "I think that is what we need. This is one way to make it happen."

Morgan Jacobsen

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