Senator Phil Jensen (R-33/Rapid City) has brought us Senate Bill 164, to require every student to pass a civics test before graduating high school. This bill continues our Legislature's dogged refusal to address the fundamental problem facing South Dakota's K-12 schools: the chronic underfunding of state aid to education that is driving the teacher shortage. SB 164 continues Republicans' habit of ignoring local control in education whenever a state mandate serves their craving for political posturing. Most importantly, Senate Bill 164 shows that Senator Jensen and his numerous co-sponsors flunk Bill-Writing 101.
Section 1 of Senate Bill 164 enacts the civics test mandate. Let me enumerate the sentences so we can better identify Senator Jensen's errors and omissions:
- Each student, before the completion of twelfth grade, shall demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of the history, principles, and form of the United States government.
- The students, as a condition to receive a high school diploma, or a diploma's equivalent, must take a civics test about history and government.
- The test consists of one hundred questions used by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to test an applicant to be a naturalized citizen of the United States.
- The student must correctly answer at least seventy percent of the questions on the civics test.
- A student may take the test at any time after enrolling in the seventh grade and may repeat the test as often as necessary to pass it.
- The requirement to pass this civics test applies to each student who is enrolled in a public school, enrolled in a nonpublic school, receiving alternative instruction pursuant to § 13-27-3, or pursuing a general educational development (GED) certificate.
Sentence 1 clutters the law books with redundant fluff. It is lawmakers making a speech before getting to the real specifics of the law.
Sentence 2 gets to work, conditioning receipt of a high school diploma on taking a civics test. Note that it fouls the language of Sentence 1, which says one must "demonstrate knowledge" of civics "before the completion of twelfth grade." A student could finish twelfth grade by passing every senior year class but still not have passed the civics test requirement and thus still not have received the diploma. Sentence 1 could be read to say that students don't get to take the test after the end of senior year; if they haven't passed the test by then, they don't get to try again and don't get the diploma.
Sentence 3 assigns students to take the 100-question test USCIS officials give to immigrants seeking to become citizens. But unlike the widely available online versions offered for fun and edification, the real test is an oral quiz in which a USCIS officer asks the applicant up to 10 of the 100 questions. It's not multiple choice. I suspect SB 164's sponsors will make speeches justifying the civics test requirement as simply requiring our students to demonstrate the same knowledge as immigrants aspiring to citizenship. However, Sentence 3 fails to specify whether we would indeed replicate that immigrant testing experience, whether we want to make it harder by asking all 100 questions, or whether we want to make it easier with multiple-choice hints on a written bubble test.
Sentence 4 clearly diverges from the naturalization test, which requires applicants to get at least six out of ten right. I prefer the 70% passing rate myself, but why diverge from the USCIS requirement? For that matter, if civics is important enough to merit a state-mandated test, why not go higher? Why not require 100%?
Sentence 5 offers some fun, allowing kids to take the test any time in junior high (anyone still call it that?) or high school. Notice it says "any time." Technically, that means every teacher must have a civics checklist on her tablet at every moment. If a lecture is getting dull or if the teacher is about to give an onerous homework assignment, the clever student can shout, "I'm ready for my civics test!" and boom!—SB 164 requires the teacher to stop the lesson cold and administer the civics test to that student. The student can fail the test with no consequences and pull the same civics-test alarm the next day, and the next, whenever it seems the class needs a break. Such disruption is not the intent of the bill, but the absolute language of Sentence 5 does not provide schools with the statutory authority to impose limits on when students can take the test. (As a teacher, I understand how a classroom and a school day works. I think of these things. As a legislator, Senator Jensen does not think through these things.)
Sentence 6 is fine, applying the requirement to every student, including homeschoolers, how will now enjoy another Republican-sponsored state mandate in their homes.
I actually like the concept of universal administration of the civics test. I bet our senior government teachers are already drilling students on the content of the naturalization test and much harder questions. If I were teaching social studies, I'd have all sorts of fun administering this civics test (and yes, even though it would take more time, I would do it as an oral exam, because that is one of the surest, most cheat-resistant to see what a kid knows).
But there is the deepest flaw of this bill. Senator Jensen and his fellow legislators come wading into my classroom, acting as if they are the experts on education, as if they've come up with a brilliant idea that we professional teachers haven't already tried and modified. They just don't trust us teachers to do the job we've been trained to do.
Senate Bill 164 has good intentions, but it's poorly written and unnecessary. Let's hoghouse it and require legislators to take the civics test before they can take their oath of office. And let's require any legislator to spend a week substitute-teaching before they file any bills trying to tell teachers how to do their jobs.