What Kansas civics stars say about the looming test they’ll have to take for graduation

The Wellsville High School Kansas Civics Games champions are, from left, James Hurd, Kaylie Reese, Dawson Dwyer and Carson Richardson. (Submitted)

That whole thing in the Kansas Capitol this year about making high school seniors take a civics test to graduate? The subject of some cynicism here and jokes about how it’s really lawmakers who should be required to pass civics tests (or at least breathalyzers)?

Actual high school seniors have some thoughts.

“I, like a lot of people, can see how civics knowledge is something that’s really important to keeping our society functioning and people tend to be lacking, but I didn’t think that a test was the best way to do that,” says Carson Richardson, of Wellsville High School.

Sharing these sentiments were his fellow seniors Kaylie Reese, James Hurd and Dawson Dwyer, winners of the first-ever Kansas Civics Games.

Held over Zoom on March 31 and April 1 and sponsored by the Kansas Newspaper Foundation’s Bill of Rights Fund, the competition earned each member of the winning team $1,000 to attend “the secondary training institution of their choice.”

It appears to have been an epic tournament of Quiz Bowl champs from 11 different high schools who put their estimable intellects to 15-minute presentations on, yep, House Bill 2039. The one requiring the civics test.

“We found that the bill seemed somewhat redundant, as there are already civics requirements in the Kansas State Board of Education,” Richardson says.

Besides studying the bill and doing other online research, the Wellsville team interviewed administrators, teachers (not just civics teachers), a counselor and the USD 289 superintendent before proposing an alternative to the 60-question test that the Legislature seems certain to impose on them.

“We suggested the option of a required semester-long course with option to test out of it,” Richardson says. “Our hope was to have a course that was more interactive, to provide students with a better chance to retain and understand the material as opposed to just memorizing it.”

Part of what made their presentation a winner, Richardson says, is that they went into detail about exactly how they would go about making the case for this idea.

“We had a very detailed plan: surveying students, holding a mock civics test at Wellsville, talking to the school board, the city council, our State Board of Education district representative Jim Porter, the actual State Board of Education and the Kansas Legislature,” he says.

Another team suggested even more dramatic amendments to HB 2039.

“We would set up a course that you would have in high school, but you would start learning about civics in 7th grade or earlier,” says Gloriana Hammye, of Burlington High School, speaking on behalf of her teammates, Brylee Huber, Seth Jarvis and Sierra Haddock.

“We would put information about civics into the regular history classes we would be taking yearly,” she adds. “We would also have the quiz to graduate, but students could take practice versions three or four times a year, so they’d have the opportunity to learn it over time and wouldn’t be prevented from graduating because of a test.”

From left, Seth Jarvis, Brylee Huber, Glorana Hammye and Sierra Haddock represented Burlington High School in the Kansas Civics Games. (Submitted)

Hammye’s teammate Huber says they were surprised at how easy it was to contact senators and representatives.

“If people have something they genuinely want to change and have done the research, they should get in touch with them,” Huber says.

However, she doesn’t think legislators heard enough from students on this bill.

“It’s easy to forget that there are a lot of people below you and they need to be heard as well,” she says, “especially when they’re the ones who are going to have to deal with the repercussions of your decisions.”

(I didn’t have the heart to tell her that, too often, lawmakers don’t even care about those repercussions.)

Both teams seem to have been surprised to learn that the Kansas Legislature has power over the State board of Education.

“I think it was a really interesting opportunity to learn more about, if there was an issue that we felt strongly about, making our voices heard and making change because it’s not going to be easy,” Richardson says.

Some Kansans might rather have Richardson in office than whoever’s representing them right now, but he’s more drawn to engineering and business.

“To be completely honest, in our current political climate, with how charged everything is, I don’t think I’d be suited to it,” he says.

Still, he’s not completely disillusioned.

“I, like many others, am hopeful for the future of civics and our current political climate,” he says. “We’re a little off balance at the moment, but I think we’ll get back. The problem right now is we’ve allowed us to get ourselves into this mindset that one side is the scum of the earth. We’re all just people. We all want to solve issues. We just disagree a little bit on how best to solve the issues.”

The Burlington team, meanwhile, has a message for their fellow Kansans.

“Stay informed no matter what,” Hammye says. “Even if it’s just a five-minute news report in the morning or a lot of effort like we did with this House bill. Find the factual evidence instead of using biased opinions.”

And, one more thing: As soon as you’re old enough, vote.

“Know who’s representing you and be able to advocate for yourself,” Hammye says. “If you don’t know the people who are representing you, you can’t seek out change.”