Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Testimony Opposing Colorado Citizenship Test Bill

Today, I testified before the Colorado Senate Education Hearing, asking them to oppose and reject SB/HB-148, which would require that all high school students pass the citizenship test as a graduation requirement. Here is the text of my testimony:

My name is Michael Mazenko, and I’m an educator and school administrator with nearly 25 years in education both here and abroad, in public and private schools. I am speaking as a private citizen and on behalf of SEEK, the grassroots group of parents and educators, and I am urging you to reject the idea of a citizenship test as a graduation requirement. I am not opposed to standardized tests – in fact, as an AP teacher, I teach to them. But this bill is unnecessary and will do nothing to improve educational outcomes for kids. On the surface, the test seems innocuous or even "a good idea," but we must not diminish a student's entire academic body of work to a single standardized test, regardless of subject. And, let’s be clear: if you pass this bill, you are stating that a single test of civics knowledge is equal in value to all other subjects combined. That is a sad dismissal of the idea of a well-rounded education.

The problem with this bill is it naively and mistakenly equates facts with knowledge. Colorado already requires students to pass a government class, and a standardized test neither proves nor guarantees a person is an informed citizen. Being able to cite the Mississippi River as the country’s longest or knowing that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration will not make citizens more informed voters. It's easy to argue that an educated person should know the same facts about American government that aspiring citizens do. But, what do those facts really prove about knowledge of citizenship and government?

Our opposition is not simply about "over-testing,” though that does create a slippery slope toward an increasing battery of tests. The problem is the significance placed on this test. No single test should be a graduation requirement. A student’s education consists of numerous subjects and varied skills with thousands of hours of class time and credits. And CDE has spent years developing the 2021 requirements that contain multiple pathways to demonstrate proficiency across curricula. Placing one test above all that is ridiculous. This test is a symbolic red herring that deceives the public into thinking passing the test will guarantee "an educated electorate." It will not.

Taking a punitive approach that threatens kids with no graduation if they don't pass a single objective test will not inspire a love of country or a deeper understanding of government. Many students will memorize the info for the test only to forget it a short time later. But this test could negatively impact struggling students who could see their entire academic record tossed aside over the inability to regurgitate facts. Many people forget civics facts after they leave high school. Will you also mandate that adult voters pass a refresher test every couple years to prove they are competent to vote? If not, then this whole idea is hypocritical. Mandating the Pledge of Allegiance does not make people love their country, and mandating a citizenship test won’t either. Let’s inspire kids with civics knowledge, not threaten them with it.

If you want to improve civics knowledge, you should promote and fund programs like Model United Nations. You should promote and fund debate classes because, let’s face it, debate kids are often the most well-informed voters in the state. This bill does not promote democracy and education, it’s not in the best interest of kids, and it should be rejected.

Overall, the hearing went well, and I believe the committee received a lot of insightful information from both sides to consider. I have to thank the committee for graciously receiving our comments and engaging in thoughtful discussion of the issue. Specifically, I want to thank Senators Andy Kerr, Nancy Todd, and Mike Johnston for their questions and comments. And I would like to thank Senators Kerr, Johnston, and bill sponsor Owen Hill for taking the time to speak with me and my son after the hearing. This was democracy in action, and for my son, that was the best civics lesson of all.

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