Bill would require passing civics test for high school graduation in TN

Tennessee high school students would be required to pass the same civics test to get their high school degrees that immigrants must pass to become United States citizens under legislation proposed for the upcoming session of the General Assembly by legislative leaders.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick says he decided to push the measure after reading reports on the “pathetic” lack of knowledge about basic principles behind American government and citizenship, especially among younger people.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris will sponsor the legislation in the Senate, according to a spokeswoman.

“We want there to be some basic understanding of how government works,” said McCormick in an interview. “That’s what our democracy depends on.”

While aware there is controversy over the number of tests already required of students, the Chattanooga Republican said the new requirement is warranted and being considered in other states.
“I think it’s very important,” he said. “It’s worth the extra effort.”

Civics Education Initiative, a group formed in 2013 with former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner as a key supporter, launched in September of 2014 an effort to have all 50 states require a civics knowledge test by 2017. The organization’s website and various media reports indicate at least seven states – Arizona, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah – will be considering similar legislation.

Says the Civics Education Initiative website in stating how the idea developed:

“Civics is being boxed out of the classroom today by an all-consuming focus on science, technology, English, and math (STEM). Teachers and administrators are being incented to teach content that will be tested – tests that are being used in many cases to determine funding and a host of outcomes for schools, students and teachers.

“While no one argued STEM isn’t important, the downside is that civics and lessons on the Bill of Rights, Constitution, and how our government works are being left by the wayside. Students are not learning how to run our country, how government is meant to operate as outlined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and more importantly, the history behind how our country came to be – the philosophy behind America’s values.”

Also in September, the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania released a national survey that found only 36 percent of Americans could name all three branches of the U.S. government and 35 percent could not name one branch. Only 27 percent knew it takes a two-thirds vote of the U.S. House and Senate to override a presidential veto and almost as many – 21 percent – thought that a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for reconsideration, according to an Annenberg news release.

The bill filed by McCormick (HB10) declares that, starting Jan. 1, 2016, “a student shall pass a civics test composed of the one hundred (100) questions that are set forth within the civics test administered by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to persons seeking to become naturalized citizens.”

To pass, correct answers would be required on at least 60 percent of questions, just as required for the naturalization test, which is reported as having a 97 percent passage rate. The bill requires the state Department of Education to develop the test and distribute it to all local school boards.

“A public high school shall provide each student with the opportunity to take the test as many times as necessary for the student to pass the test. A student shall not receive a regular high school diploma until the student passes the test,” says the bill, as filed by McCormick.

Norris has promoted civics education both as a legislator and as current president of the Council of State Governments. In 2012, he and state Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, successfully sponsored a law that requires schools to assess students’ civics knowledge at some point between grades 4-8 in grades and again in at some point between grades 9-12 after involvement in a student project related to “understanding and relevance of public policy, the structure of federal, state and local governments and both the United States and Tennessee constitutions,” according to the Legislature’s website.

The current naturalization test is administered orally and a list of correct answers to 100 potential questions – ten typically posed with six correct answers required — is made available to applicants and is posted online. (Note: It’s HERE.)

Civics Education Initiative has a sample 100-question, multiple-choice test based on the questions asked in the naturalization test. (HERE)

The first question on the latter: “How many amendments does the U.S. Constitution have?”

The multiple-choice options: 12, 27, 35, 42.

The last question: “What do we show loyalty to when we say the Pledge of Allegiance?”

The multiple-choice options: The flag, our parents, the president.