For TN students, taking civics test is mandatory; passing it is not

In a “guidance” message sent to public school system directors last week, the state Department of Education declares – contrary to some suggestions – a new law requiring high school students to take a civics test does not require they get a passing grade for graduation.

“All public high school students, including the class of 2017, are expected to participate in the civics test; however, a passing grade is not a requirement for graduation,” said the guidance sent by email on Thursday.

As reported by the Kingsport Times-News, there has been confusion over whether passage of the test was required for a high school student to graduate under the law, which was approved in the Legislature and signed by Gov. Bill Haslam last year, though it doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2017.

The newspaper noted that media reports, some legislators and many school officials thought passage was mandatory. The Kingsport Board of Education adopted a local rule, intended to comply with the new law, that adds civics test passage as a graduation requirement in the local system.

As the bill (HB10) was initially drafted, passage would have been required for graduation, said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, in a telephone interview. But McCormick, lead sponsor of the measure, said an amendment added late in the process dropped the passage mandate with an eye to making “some common sense exceptions” for “special needs kids” and other students who might have understandable reasons for failing.

“You might have a case where a student who tried really hard and met all other requirements just could not pass it for whatever reason,” he said. “That could be embarrassing to the student and the family… especially if it got into the media.”

As enacted, the bill does declare that students can take the test as many times as necessary to get a passing grade, set as answering 70 percent of the questions correctly.

Explains the guidance email: “Beginning in January 2017, all high schools must administer a United States civics test. The test should be prepared by each district and should be comprised of between 25 and 50 questions. Questions must come from U.S. citizenship test administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Students must correctly answer at least 70 percent of the questions on the test to earn a passing grade. A student may participate in the test as many times as necessary to earn a passing grade.”

The Department of Education also says in the email that schools where all graduating seniors pass the test will get a certificate from the department declaring them “United States Civics All Star Schools.”

When introducing the bill, also sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, McCormick said he was inspired by surveys showing many Americans’ knowledge of basic civics is “pathetic.” Civics Education Initiative, a group formed in 2013 with former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner as a key supporter, has been pushing for enactment of similar legislation in all 50 states.