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Optimism over proposedcivics-test requirement

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 25, 2011 7:20 AM

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Don’t know much about U.S. history and politics? You’re not alone.

These usually stale and erudite topics have been increasingly relegated to the academic realm, the sole bastion of scholars in endless debate over what the Founding Fathers really did intend.

Regardless, inhabitants of this country should have — at very least — a basic knowledge of the workings of government and the events that led to our modern version of America. That is why a recently proposed bill in the state House of Representatives is so important: It would require that high-school seniors pass the 100-question U.S. Citizenship test before graduating, inculcating a basic knowledge of government in the state’s youth. While this may only amount to a an exercise in rote memorization to some (and raises a couple of concerns), students will have the opportunity to expand upon this knowledge following high school.

“It’s the core of what a citizen ought to know,” Rep. Jeremy Taylor, R-Sioux City, the lawmaker who introduced the bill, told The Daily Iowan on Monday.

The bill, HF 24, proposes that Iowa high-school seniors correctly answer only 75 of the 100 questions and are allowed numerous tries to do so. (The measure awaits review by the House Education Committee.) The questions range from the absurdly simplistic — “What are the colors of the American flag?” — to some that require actual knowledge of politics, such as naming the state’s two current senators.

While the rest of the nation may view Iowa as a mainstay in U.S. politics, our students’ historical knowledge of government paints a different picture entirely. The state Department of Education requires that students in grades nine through 12 receive tutelage in U.S. government, history, and Iowa politics “as a condition of graduation.” Yet a 2011 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that Iowa’s curriculum resoundingly failed to include adequate, standardized historical knowledge, noting:

“Iowa’s purported standards are an affront to the state’s teachers, parents, and students.”

“I definitely would feel that [civics and government] has been slighted,” West High government teacher Mitch Gross told the DI Editorial Board Thursday. “There’s been such a focus on math and reading, and obviously, those are important subjects … but having said that, it’s an area that in most curricula keeps getting cut. You probably do see the ramifications of that later on.”

At its core, a knowledge of politics is essential to the future functioning of a democracy. To Americans, “systematic differences in political knowledge have serious implications for the ability of some groups to perceive and act on their self-interest,” concluded Michael Carpini of the Pew Charitable Trusts in his study on the political knowledge and perceived efficacy of average Americans.

The introduction of a pre-graduation evaluation may just provide hard evidence that Iowa educational standards in the social sciences need reworking, giving the state Department of Education the wake-up call it needs to improve civics programs in all counties.

Still, there are some concerns — most notably, the prospect of another unfunded mandate adding to the public-school burden. Gross expressed this worry, citing the Iowa House’s proposed 0 percent allowable growth for public-school budgets for the next fiscal year. “Who’s going to pay for it?” he asked. A good question.

And a standardized test, while it might stress the fundamentals, couldn’t substitute for actual involvement in the political process. “ I’d like there to be a focus of becoming more engaged in grass-roots level politics, people volunteering in campaigns, doing issue advocacy,” Gross said. “I think that’s the best way to get involved or illustrate your citizenship, rather than passing the test.”

But a working knowledge of the basics could give students the basic tools to get involved. “Civic self-education increases active civic engagement,” noted a major finding of the American Civic Literacy Program’s 2011 “Enlightened Citizenship” report. The test, particularly if it leads to an improved curriculum and re-evaluation of state achievement, would be a step in the right direction; it would not directly lead to a more engaged citizenry.

Still, we hope the Legislature votes to give high-school seniors that extra kick out into the political world. Particularly if it comes with measures to actually improve education, not just add another test.


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