Mandatory high school civics test endorsed by Colorado Senate committee

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Todd Engdahl on March 31, 2016

Colorado students would have to pass a multiple-choice civics test to graduate high school under a bill approved Thursday by a divided Senate Education Committee.

“This is not high-stakes testing. This is a quiz,” said sponsor Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs. “The goal here is to have a conversation about civics.”

The committee had quite a conversation, spending two hours chewing on Senate Bill 16-148 after having already heard two hours of testimony on Wednesday.

Bill critics agreed that the test is simple but argued that’s not necessarily a virtue.

“These are facts they should be memorizing … long before high school,” said Lakewood Democratic Sen. Andy Kerr, who’s a working social studies teacher.

Simplicity aside, Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, said the civics exam “would become the highest stakes test we have” because of the tie to graduation.

The new bill would require ninth graders take the civics portion of the federal government exam immigrants who want to become naturalized citizens take.

What’s the naturalization civics test look like? Take some sample exams.

Students would have to correctly answer 60 of 100 questions in order to graduate. Students could repeatedly take the test through 12th grade until they passed.

The new exam would be on top of a longstanding state requirement that every student “satisfactorily complete” a civics class to graduate.

Disabled students wouldn’t have to take the test, and principals or superintendents could waive the requirement for students who meet all other graduation requirements and can show “extraordinary circumstances.” And test results would not be used for teacher evaluations or district and school ratings.

Committee members asked Hill if the bill would allow principals or superintendents to waive the test for whole groups of students. He indicated it would, to the quiet surprise of several people in the room.

Bill supporters and opponents who testified Wednesday agreed that students’ civics knowledge is below par and that social studies has been deemphasized by schools’ focus on language arts and math testing.

Representatives from groups like the Arizona-based Joe Foss Institute, the American Values Center of Pueblo and the Independence Institute supported the bill. The Foss Institute is promoting similar bills in legislatures nationwide.ine such laws were passed last year.

“We are proud this is a bipartisan effort,” said Lucian Spataro of the institute. “This is an issue that rises above politics.”

But social studies experts and school board members testified against the bill.

“This bill is unnecessary and will do nothing to improve educational outcomes,” said Michael Mazenko, the gifted and talented coordinator at Cherry Creek High School. “No single test should be a graduation requirement.”

Thursday’s 5-4 vote deviated from the panel’s usual patterns. Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, voted yes. But Sen.Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, voted no, saying she was offended by witnesses who called the test questions “trivia” and saying civics education needs a big cleanup.

“We are losing our culture” because of “misinformation” taught in schools, she said.

The bill does have bipartisan sponsorship in both houses. It’s the only testing bill currently in play at the Capitol, less than 12 months after passage of legislation that significantly reduced testing.

Get more background on the bill and on state testing in this Chalkbeat story.

Chalkbeat Colorado is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Photo credit: Nicolas Garcia