Do we really need a test to measure civics knowledge?

Randy Richardson reports on a proposed Republican solution in search of a problem for Iowa schools. -promoted by desmoinesdem

According to a study by the Council of Great City Schools, a typical student takes 112 mandated standardized tests between pre-kindergarten classes and 12th grade. At least a few of those tests are of dubious value.

Now it appears as though one more test may be required in Iowa schools. GOP State Senator Jerry Behn from Boone introduced Senate File 2341, which would require Iowa students to take and pass a 100 question multiple choice civics test as a requirement for graduation.

The idea for this test originated with the Arizona-based Joe Foss Institute. The Institute believes there is a national crisis around civics education based on the fact that a recent National Assessment of Education Progress test showed that only 24 percent of American high school students were proficient in civics.

There appears to be little evidence that this is a problem in Iowa. Most Iowa schools offer a civics class in middle school and American history and government in high school. Combine that with the fact that over 91 percent of Iowa students graduate from high school (the highest rate in the country) and it’s pretty obvious that large numbers of Iowa students are exposed to and complete classes in civics and American government. In fact, all 50 states require students to successfully complete some level of civics education.

The bill requires schools to offer the proctored examination at least one time per calendar year for students in grades 7-12. The test questions come directly from the citizenship exam required of all new U.S. citizens. Iowa students must get 60 percent of the questions correct in order to be eligible to graduate from high school. Students can take the test as often as needed. The Iowa Department of Education has been tasked with developing the test, translating into the seven most common Non-English languages in the state and developing an alternative assessment for children with disabilities. The test is expected to cost the state about $60,000 annually. No estimates have been made on additional costs for school districts.

Currently 23 states have implemented measures requiring students to take the citizenship examination, and eight of those states have made it a requirement for graduation. At least four of the states require a selection of 50 or fewer questions on the examination, rather than the full 100.

The requirements have a number of critics around the state and across the country. Joseph Kahne, a professor of education at Mills says of the initiative “It’s an empty symbolic effort, there’s not any evidence base to show that this will be effective … It’s something state legislators can pass and feel good about.”

Other critics indicate that this is simply one more test that offers little value to students. The multiple choice test is simple and requires virtually no critical thinking from students. The test is essentially a reading comprehension test as much as a civics exam. Testing will take time away from other activities at school as students spend time preparing for and taking the exam. The Institute makes the actual test and several practice tests available free of charge on their web site. Anyone wanting to test their civics proficiency can do so at

Although the Foss Institute touts that it is bipartisan it does tend to lean to the right. Arizona and North Dakota were the first two states to require passing the test as a requirement for graduation. Those states, as well as the other early adopters, lean toward the right.

Since Arizona and North Dakota have had the law in place since 2015, they are the first to have data available to show how students were impacted by the requirement. In Arizona, the Tucson school district reported that out of 7000 students who took the test only fourteen didn’t pass. However, all fourteen have now recorded a passing grade. In Phoenix, over 5300 students took the test and fewer than 30 failed.

Three North Dakota districts reported on their success rate. In Fargo 97 percent of students passed the exam. In the Sheyenne school district the pass rate was 96 percent while in Wells Fargo it was 92 percent.

The former high school social studies teacher in me says this is a massive waste of time and energy. This is a simple memorization test, and the multiple choice format will allow for some guessing. Iowa schools already spend sufficient time teaching civics and government and are required by law to offer voter registration to those students who are eligible. In a time of scarce resources for our schools, there are many better ways to spend money than on this program.

The Iowa Senate approved Senate File 2341 by 38 votes to 12 on February 28. The bill now sits in an Iowa House Education subcommittee. The full House Education Committee would need to approve this legislation by March 16 to keep it alive for the 2018 session.

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  • Make Legislators take the test

    Seems to me it would be nice to know if legislators could pass the civics test before they worry about the <.05% of high school students who don't. Why we're at it maybe we should require an ethics test for legislators in order to run for office. I suspect many would fail.

  • The most important civics lessons...

    …learned when I was young wouldn’t have fit into a written test. They came from watching my parents voting in every election and watching them getting involved in local school-funding and equal-opportunity-housing campaigns. I helped them a little in high school. I hope many young Iowans are now learning similar lessons..

  • An Amendment

    I’d favor this as long as all our elected officials had to pass it too, and candidates had to pass to be on the ballot.