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by Pioneer Press Editorial Board

in the Pioneer Press on Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Were state lawmakers reluctant to cast what might look like a vote against civics education in our schools?

In this election year, perhaps so.

Civics education — on the Constitution, the responsibilities of citizenship, how our democratic republic works, and so on — is critical, particularly in the United States, whose continuing pursuit of its founding ideals depends on broad and deep understanding of the ideas upon which it was founded. It’s important enough that lawmakers should take a more discerning look at it than they may have during this year’s legislative session.

A measure to test students’ knowledge of government, the Constitution and the responsibilities of citizenship was tucked into an 800-page appropriations bill that lawmakers passed on the last day of the session, the Pioneer Press noted, in a report on little-noticed provisions.

“The goal here is that when people graduate from high school they can list more presidents than Kardashians,” the bill’s chief author Rep. Dean Urdahl told us.

The Republican from Grove City, a social studies teacher for 35 years before his retirement from the classroom, quotes former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor about the “crisis in civic education in the United States.”

In Minnesota, he told us, we have “de-emphasized social studies and civics as we have emphasized reading and math and science. We need to start to balance that better.”

Nothing wrong with that notion. (More emphasis on free-enterprise and economics would serve aspiring students well, too.)

But Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius is among those taking exception to the method of civics education the Legislature passed this year: “I am strongly opposed to the House’s proposed creation of a civics test,” she wrote to lawmakers. “Parents and students are asking for fewer and more valuable tests, not new ones that may threaten the full implementation of our K-12 social studies standards.”

Critics also include the education reform group MinnCAN and the League of Women Voters Minnesota.

“We tried to raise the red flags. It didn’t register,” Susan Sheridan Tucker, the league’s executive director told us. “I don’t think legislators saw it in the same light.”

“Everyone wants students to know their history. Of course, you want people to be civically educated,” she said, emphasizing her organization’s longtime advocacy in that arena. When it comes to being an informed citizen, “It’s not just a matter of taking a rote test,” Tucker told us.

The exam emphasizes memorization over deep understanding of the content and fails to measure civic engagement skills, according to the education department.

At a time educators are working to expand civics knowledge to include women, African Americans, native peoples, Hispanics and others, “one large concern we have with the assessment is that nearly all the answers are white men,” said Joshua Crossen, MinnCAN’s advocacy manager.

Beyond the need to “test better and test less,” Crossen is concerned that the measure is a “punitive assessment.”

“It’s not aligned to Minnesota state standards. It does not inform instruction and let kids know how they’re doing and how we can improve their education,” he said. Failure could not prevent a student from graduating, but a school district may record a student’s test results on his or her transcript, the Pioneer Press reported.

The civics test is part of a national movement — detailed at civicseducationinitiative.org.

Minnesota is poised to join Wisconsin and the Dakotas among those signing on to an effort to pass such legislation in all 50 states before the 230th anniversary of the Constitution in 2017.

The exam should be administered “in conjunction with civics tests that are already being given,” Urdahl told us. “The point is not to have another new test.”

The mechanism that passed at the last minute this session may be the wrong one, but we applaud a renewed emphasis on civics. It’s worth revisiting.


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