Other Voices

Civics test for graduation is a good policy

Think back to your grade school days and those many times when you had to memorize a lesson. Even decades removed from the exam, you might still remember the material, even if it never had relevance in your life again.

But the ability to recall the quadratic formula, for example, masks a much bigger question: Did memorizing the material lead you to apply it to your life?

That is one of the questions raised by a recent move in Texas, Arizona and several other states to begin requiring students to pass a civics test to graduate.

North Dakota has already approved a requirement similar to Arizona’s, and South Carolina, Indiana and Utah have bills in the pipeline.

Few would dispute the statements made by the sponsor of a bill that would require Texas students to pass a civics test, Texas state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, who was quoted as saying, “When you start having students graduate from high school who don’t know where we got our independence from and that kind of stuff, I think it’s a little frightening. I want kids to know as much as people who become citizens of the United States.”

Concern about students’ levels of civic knowledge has plagued Texas and the nation for a while. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in civics barely rose between 2006 and 2010 for eighth- and 12th-graders, though they did edge up for fourth-graders.

But beyond civic knowledge, Texans should be concerned about a student’s ability to participate as an active citizen.

The most recent Texas Civic Health Index completed by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life found startlingly low levels of civic engagement among all Texans, including young adults, on everything from voting to discussing issues to communicating with their elected representatives.

An exam that tests a student’s civic knowledge would enable and encourage some of those students to participate more actively in civic life. But research shows that three ingredients are necessary for more students to become active citizens: civic knowledge, civic skills and pro-civic attitudes.

Building all three requires a curriculum, sometimes called “action civics,” that not only teaches kids facts, but also offers an experiential learning opportunity that encourages students to identify, research and address community needs.

From an attitudinal standpoint, students need to grasp the significance of government in their daily lives and the need for an ongoing dialogue with their elected and appointed public servants.

What is needed is a more profound project-based civics curriculum that encourages students across Texas to research current issues of interest and articulate causes and solutions. Those experiences help make civics fun, challenging and, perhaps most importantly, relevant to a student’s life.

Research shows that such experiences significantly increase a young person’s inclination to become civically active as an adult — to vote, to join a community organization, to contact elected representatives and to continue speaking out on issues that concern them for the rest of their lives.

The challenge of making students more civically literate is daunting. While adding another graduation requirement in a state with already extremely low graduation rates may give some reason to pause and while some Texans bemoan more school assessments, an exam would help make teaching civics more of a priority.

After all, if teachers are evaluated partly on the basis of their students’ test scores, then those teachers would probably be more motivated to spend more time on civics lessons if their students had to take an exam in that subject.

Students themselves might also show a greater interest in the subject if they knew that mastering the three branches of our federal government and key milestones in American political history was a key part to their advancement.

It is encouraging to see the topics of civic literacy and civic engagement entering the public consciousness in Texas. If an exam does become required and gets paired with added resources for action civics, students would be given the opportunity to practice what is being preached, develop fluency in the language of civics, and become lifelong engaged citizens.

Regina Lawrence, Larry Schooler and Deborah Wise are affiliated with the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at The University of Texas at Austin.