As if American students don’t already face enough standardized tests, here comes another.
Legislatures in eight states are considering adding success on a civics test to the requirements for high school graduation. Florida isn’t one of them, but it can’t be long before test-happy Tallahassee adopts the idea, which surfaced most recently in North Dakota.
There, as in most if not all the other states, the proposed test is the one the U.S. Government gives to immigrants applying for naturalization. There are 100 questions and answers, dealing with history and civics, to study. The immigration examiner picks 10 at random; the applicant must get at least six right. In the public schools, on the other hand, students would face all 100 and need to nail no fewer than 60.
As the coach for a middle-aged immigrant who is about to submit his citizenship application, I am quite familiar with that test. It’s not difficult. He already knows all the answers. If he has a problem, it will be nervousness.
When he passes, he’ll probably know more than most native-born citizens do. In a recent poll, only 36 percent could identify the three branches of government. José can.
But that’s not saying much. The test is an exercise in memorization and rote. It doesn’t require critical thinking. It imparts a fair idea of how our government works, but not why it was designed that way, and it doesn’t begin to explain why it sometimes doesn’t work as it was intended to. It’s like trying to understand human physiology by looking only at the skeleton.
Recently, for example, I was explaining to José why a bill favored by a majority in the U.S. Senate couldn’t even come to a vote because a minority opposed it. I decided against delving into the outsized influence of the gun lobby and the vote-suppressing effects of gerrymandering and Citizens United. Better to let him think the votes he wants to cast will actually matter; someday, one can only hope, they will.
I don’t mean to put down the people who want to test high school students on American history and civics. There’s no arguing with Betsy Dalrymple, North Dakota’s first lady, that “it is important for all Americans to know about the first principles of our constitutional government.”
There’s no arguing, either, with the fact that American students test dismally on their knowledge of history and civics. In the most recent (2010) National Assessment of Educational Progress sampling of history and civics, only 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated grade-level proficiency. Note that the results worsened with age.
As education historian Diane Ravitch pointed out to The New York Times, the critical thinking deficit was dramatized by the inability of all but 2 percent of the seniors to correctly answer what social problem was addressed by this passage in the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education: “We hold that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place, separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
“The answer was right in front of them,” Ravitch said. “This is alarming.”
The National Assessment routinely finds that American students know less about their history and civics than any other subject. This is not likely a coincidence. History and civics are not among the subjects of the standardized tests, such as Florida’s infamous, not-to-be-mourned FCAT, by which schools are praised or damned and children are failed or promoted. As more than one educator has told me, “If it isn’t tested, it won’t be taught.”
Thanks to leadership from former Gov. Bob Graham and others, Florida’s Legislature now requires a semester of civics in middle school. But that is far from enough. American history and American government need to be woven into the entire curriculum until the students come of voting age, and they need to be taught — and tested — in ways that encourage critical thinking, not just rote answers.
It is wrong to blame teachers if this isn’t happening. Those who do blame them idealize a vanished world where it wasn’t necessary for mothers to work outside the home, where students didn’t have a welter of electronic distractions, where teachers could enforce discipline and count on parents to back them up, where students handicapped by poverty simply weren’t counted, and where teaching was an honored profession, respected rather than trashed by politicians scheming to save money at the expense of the public schools. Moreover, as it is often pointed out, we do much too little to properly train teachers before they enter the classroom or perfect their skills afterward.
No standardized test can ever make up for all that.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. His wife is an educator. They live near Waynesville, N.C.