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Lawmaker wants civics test before high-school graduation

BY KATIE HEINE | FEBRUARY 21, 2011 7:20 AM

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Grace Hoyland can swiftly list the three branches of government without much thought. And she said it’s only fair that all Americans can do the same.

“[Some] people not born here know more than people who were,” the 15-year-old West High freshman said. “That’s messed up.”

Hoyland and other Iowa high-school students may soon need to pass a civics exam to graduate. Newly proposed legislation would require all high-school students to pass an exam consisting of the same questions asked of people seeking United States citizenship.

West High government teacher Gary Neuzil said he’s not too troubled about the idea. He gives his students the citizenship test early in the semester, he said, and although the freshmen struggle, it shows students what they should know. The implementation of a state exam wouldn’t be an infringement on his curriculum, he said.

“If we’re not already teaching these principles, then we’re not doing our job,” he said.

The bill, proposed by Rep. Jeremy Taylor, R-Sioux City, passed a House subcommittee and is awaiting review by the Education Committee.

Taylor, an English teacher at North High School in Sioux City, said he gave his students the civics exam after his wife became a naturalized citizen. The results were grim, he said — the majority of students failed.

“It’s the core of what a citizen ought to know,” said Taylor, who said he was shocked by the results of his test.

But according to a recent study, he shouldn’t be too surprised.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit education organization, recently released an analysis of U.S. history standards across the nation.

Iowa was one of 28 states to receive an F. South Carolina was the only state to receive straight As; the national average was a D.

The study noted that while most states have academic standards in place, few have the structures to hold students accountable for achieving the standards.

Taylor said it concerns him Iowa has no form of assessing student’s knowledge aside from the Iowa Test of Educational Development. The proposed bill would act as a means for students to demonstrate that they possess basic knowledge.

But it’s important to recognize this is a minimum of knowledge, it’s not all that will be taught, he said.
Students could probably pass the civics test, said Melanie Gibbens, who teaches American history at City High, 1900 Morningside Drive.

At that school, all students are required to pass a 12-week national-government course and a 12-week state- and local-government course.

“I would think that in the course of the 24 weeks, students would be able to pass,” she said.

Regardless of the outcome, Taylor said, he’s happy to use the proposed legislation as a conversation starter.

“If this isn’t the one, I’m willing to look at others, but I’m not content with saying that what we have is working well,” he said.


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