Concerns over standardized tests halt progress of civics ed.
(Colo.) Despite a national push to resuscitate civics education in the classroom, bills that would have required students to pass a civics test to graduate failed in 18 states between 2015 and 2017, according to a new report.
At the same time, eight states did adopt such a requirement in the last two years, according to analysis from the Colorado-based Education Commission of the States and the Joe Foss Institute, a civics-focused nonprofit based in Arizona, found that.
An additional nine states require students to take the exam, but don’t require a passing grade to graduate.
Researchers found that while lawmakers on both sides of the isle demonstrated support for an increase in civics instruction, few approved of pushing for additional required standardized tests–especially like the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) naturalization civics test immigrants must pass to become legal citizens, which requires only rote memorization.
“Defeat of the legislation primarily reflects a rejection of additional mandated high-stakes testing and concerns over the adequacy of the proposed test to ensure robust civic learning,” authors wrote. “The USCIS naturalization civic test was not designed as a high school civic literacy exam and involves memorizing 100 civic facts, which heightened anxieties that the requirement could drive teaching to the test and set low expectations for development of students’ civic competencies.”
At the federal level, there is currently $1.7 million set aside for funding new professional development programs supporting history and civics education, with an expectation that Congress will allocate more in the 2018 budget plan. Both Delaware and Nevada included specifics to expand civics education in their federal Every Student Succeeds Plans, and leaders in California, Florida and Illinois, among others, are also encouraging districts to teach students more about how government works, especially in high school.
Approximately 70 percent of adults were unable to even name all three branches of government, according to poll results released last year from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and about that many surveyed also believed that a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court could be appealed. Additionally, almost 40 percent of participants said that the president has the power to declare war.
Throughout the country, policymakers are promoting lessons in citizenship and civics, which many argue fell by the wayside in recent years due to the nearly universal call for more science, technology, engineering, math and other career-focused curriculum.
In 2015, Arizona became the first state to pass the Civics Education Initiative by requiring high school students to pass a civics test to graduate, with questions drawn from the same test immigrants to the country must pass for naturalization. As of September 1, states including Alabama, Kentucky, Montana and West Virginia have followed suit.
But in 2017 alone, Connecticut, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Washington, Pennsylvania and Michigan lawmakers all failed to pass similar legislation–despite support for the subject of civics garnered from policymakers across party lines.
According to the report, opposing arguments centered not on the need for stronger civics education, but rather, a desire to move away from additional standardized tests. Many said that civics education requires engaging with that democracy by acquiring and applying skills like deliberation, critical thinking, and media literacy, and that the use of multiple choice assessments like the USCIS naturalization test would only promote rote memorization of facts about the history and structure of our democracy, rather than a deep understanding needed to inform and engage citizens.
Researchers highlighted two states that authors of the report said do provide students with experienced-based learning. In Missouri, the State Board of Education encourages school districts to implement service-learning, which engages students in exploring and addressing real-world issues.
And in Nebraska–where a bill requiring a passing grade on a civics exam to graduate failed in 2016–state civics standards include “active participation in the improvement of a citizen’s community, state, country and world, and the values and practice of civil discourse between opposing interests,” in an effort to support engaged learning.
“Most agree that the USCIS naturalization civics test requirement is only one tool among many that state policymakers may use to strengthen civic education and better prepare students for active participation in civic life,” authors wrote. “Research demonstrates that when students are provided with both traditional instruction and opportunities for engaged and applied learning experiences, they best acquire content knowledge, as well as the skills and dispositions that cultivate civic participation.”