TOPEKA — Rep. Steve Huebert pivoted from politics to mathematics to explain his three-year campaign to add a required civics test to the curriculum of public, private and parochial high schools.
His first lesson was drawn from the Annenberg Civics Knowledge survey of 1,000 adults revealing only 51% were capable of identifying the three branches of government — executive, legislative, judicial. Of particular concern, he said, was one-fourth were unable to name one branch.
The second point is that understanding how government functions and what the constitution authorizes are important components of an informed citizen, Huebert said.
“Just like math students need to learn the basic principles of multiplication in order to study physics and engineering,” said Huebert, a Valley Center Republican who chairs the House Education Committee. “All citizens need to understand the basic principles of how democracy works in order to participate for the rest of their lives. I’m passionate about it. We have a challenge before us.”
He said the solution was House Bill 2039, which would require high school students to pass a civics exam, or a series of civics tests, as part of a required course necessary for a student to graduate. The Kansas House endorsed 69-54 his strategy to have teachers choose from 60 multiple-choice questions on the naturalization test given by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The version passed by the House would require aggregate student achievement data from the civics assessments to be reported annually to the State Board of Education.
The House Education Committee attempted to appease critics by pulling back from the original proposal to order a 100-question, high-stakes exam of all high school students on civics. The legislation would apply to an estimated 40,000 students annually.
No need for extra testing
The bill was opposed by the Kansas Association of School Boards, an administrator with the Olathe public school district and the Kansas National Education Association. Their argument was that Huebert’s bill unnecessarily duplicated current elements of the curriculum and interfered with the elected state Board of Education’s authority under the Kansas Constitution to supervise K-12 public education throughout the state. Elected local school boards are responsible for decisions on implementation of curriculum and testing.
“We wonder why we are now singling out young people with the assumption that they know nothing about civics, history and government,” said KNEA representative Mark Desetti. “With the number of elected officials across the nation finding themselves in hot water for ethical violations, misrepresentations of American history, racist comments and even violations of law, perhaps we should require every candidate for elected office to pass such a test.”
He said the theory could be expanded by the Legislature to order testing of law enforcement officers’ grasp of constitutional rights. Perhaps the state ought to make men and women seeking careers in the U.S. military to demonstrate mastery of civics, history and government before enlisting, he said.
“We do not deny that there is an apparent need for a refresher course in civics in the United States generally,” Desetti said. “But right now, our Kansas public school students are taking civics, history and government classes in our high schools. They are subjected to tests in those classes and, if they pass those tests, they get credit for the class. If they don’t pass, they fail the class and must take it again in order to get enough credits to graduate. There is no need to legislate more in this area.”
State Board of Education members Deena Horst, of Salina, and Ben Jones, of Sterling, said they had no issue with legislators making recommendations about curriculum but “the appropriateness of implementing the contents of a test should be made by educators.” Jones’ state board district includes Valley Center, and he counts Huebert among his constitutuents.
Huebert said he didn’t want to get into a power struggle with the state Board of Education. He said the Legislature had the task of making certain students were educated in civic government. Instead of fighting at the Capitol, he said, advocates of education ought to work together on making civic education a key piece of high school teaching.
AG: Idea ‘unassailable’
Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican and former member of the Kansas Senate, said he had long been interested in increasing civic education in Kansas schools. In 2015, he proposed the state Board of Education consider making passage of a stand-alone civics test a requirement for graduation.
The state board didn’t agree with him, but the discussion led to development of the Civic Advocacy Network that assists students in Kansas who participate in governmental processes in schools, communities and at the state level.
“The basic idea of requiring passage of the citizenship test seems to me unassailable,” Schmidt said. “We should combat the natural human tendency to take for granted that which comes easily, such as citizenship for those of us born to it, and a ready way to do so is to hold us to the same standard for knowledge as those who choose to join our citizenry.”
He said the bill wasn’t just a school management issue. “It’s a being-an-American-citizen test,” he said.
The attorney general also pointed to results of the Annenberg project indicating a mere 47% of adults participating in the survey knew that a two-thirds vote of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate was required to override a presidential veto.
One bizarre finding was 29% thought Congress had the final say in constitutional disputes between the U.S. president and the U.S. Supreme Court.
“There is no cure-all to resolve this gap between the lack of civic knowledge and the nation’s vital need for it, and I am well aware of the dedicated and ongoing work of civics and government instructors and other leaders throughout Kansas schools,” Schmidt said.
‘Frozen ski jump’
Rep. Mark Samsel, R-Wellsville, said the evidence was clear students were struggling with civics education. He said it was difficult to listen to KNEA testimony in opposition to the bill because so many Kansans “don’t understand how civics works.”
Only 45% of Kansas eighth-graders have acceptable levels of civics knowledge based on existing tests, said Rep. Susan Estes, a Wichita Republican. The proposed testing mandate is justified because nearly 55% of students in eighth grade have substandard abilities in civics, she said.
Rep. Jerry Stogsdill, a Prairie Village Democrat, said he was particularly concerned the Legislature would pile on examinations when students were already required to pass a course in American government. These instructional tweaks are best left to the state and local boards of education, he said.
“It’s a tremendous overreach by the Legislature to get into curriculum. That’s not a slippery slope. This a frozen ski jump,” Stogsdill said.
On the other hand, Huebert said 21 states have adopted laws comparable to the high-stakes test he originally sought for Kansas. He said revisions to the bill attempted to eliminate the projected $400,000 implementation cost, minimized the high-stakes aspect of testing and placed the examination process within the framework of an existing high school course. Some teachers in Kansas are using the citizenship test in their classes, he said.
“We have what’s regarded as a nation at risk,” he said. “This is what I call mom and apple pie.”