State bill would require high-school students to pass civics exam

Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Rep. Kathy Swan

Missouri’s high-school students would have to pass a civics exam, similar to the U.S. naturalization test, to graduate from high school under a bill proposed by state Rep. Kathy Swan, R-Cape Girardeau.

If enacted into law, all students entering ninth grade after July 1, 2017, would have to pass such a test.

A House committee recently approved the bill. Swan, who sponsored similar legislation last session, said she is optimistic the Missouri General Assembly will pass her bill this time.

Swan has argued engaged citizenship starts with civics education. High-school graduates should have the same basic knowledge of the nation’s government and history as naturalized citizens, who must pass a 100-question test, she said.

The need for solid, civics education is an issue nationwide, Swan said. To bolster her view, Swan said, “Some people thought (TV celebrity) Judge Judy was a Supreme Court judge.”

American citizens need to be better informed about our history, geography and our government, she said.

But Cape Girardeau Central High School social-studies teacher Marty Vines said civics education is covered in the current government-class curriculum.

“The curriculum for the government class is bogged down with testing. Students have to take the United States Constitution test, Missouri Constitution test, EOC (state standardized test) and the CAP Exam (school final),” Vines said.

“They are literally testing or preparing for a test for the last month of the semester,” he said. “To add yet another test would be overkill when students are already exhausted from all of the tests.”

Dr. John Link, Jackson School District superintendent, agreed high-school students in Missouri take several civics-related exams.

“We are already such a test-heavy education system,” he said.

Link said a better approach would be to improve the existing curriculum and testing, if necessary. Link said the focus of education should be to provide students with critical thinking skills so they know how to access information.

Jackson students, he said, are “well prepared” to be good citizens.

But calls for a civics exam continue to be raised in state legislatures across the country. Last year, nine states passed measures to enact such testing. This year, 23 states including Missouri are considering similar legislation being promoted by the Civics Education Initiative, said Lucian Spataro, who leads the civics effort and other educational initiatives for the Joe Foss Institute in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Spataro said schools nationwide have put less of an emphasis on civics education and focused more on math, science and technology.

“Kids are growing up, and they are not civically engaged,” he said.

Surveys in recent years have shown Americans lack knowledge of civics, history and geography, Spataro said.

For example, only 14 percent of high-school seniors in one study could correctly identify Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence. Studies by the Annenberg Public Policy Center have shown only a third of U.S. citizens can identify even one branch of the federal government.

A mandated civics-education test would help address the problem, Spataro said.

“There is an adage in education that if it is tested, it is taught,” he added. Testing, he said, should be tied to graduation or performance for school funding.

The civics initiative calls for students to correctly answer 60 of 100 questions as is required for a passing grade on the naturalization test, he said.

“We are looking at this as a floor, not a ceiling,” he said of what constitutes passing the test.

Spataro said the initiative has strong, bipartisan support nationwide.

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