A bipartisan group of state legislators have recently proposed a bill that would require all students in Minnesota public schools to show knowledge of U.S. Civics in order to graduate from high school. Students would “show” their knowledge by achieving a score of 60 percent or higher on a 100-question, multiple-choice exam resembling the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service’s (USCIS) Civics test. As an alumna of our Minnesota public schools, I believe that although the bill authors might have good intentions, requiring all students to take and pass a test that poorly represents U.S. Civics would be counterproductive and unjust, and contribute to our state’s already nation-trailing achievement gaps.
This bill has been introduced because, allegedly, students are not as aware of U.S. Civics as some legislators believe they “should” be upon graduation. However, the USCIS Civics exam that legislators have proposed using in their bill would encompass civics and U.S. history. What’s more, the test does not really cover civics information that would be helpful, like details surrounding citizens’ rights and duties. Instead, it focuses heavily on individuals and events of the past that do not impact students’ daily lives, nor empower them to be more active and engaged citizens.
Wanting to educate students on how to use their governing political body as citizens is a noble and reasonable goal. Requiring that students know who the President of United States was during World War II or the names of the 13 original colonies—just for the sake of passing a test—is not.
Further, while being competent in civics might be important, it should not be mandatory, especially in the ways it’s currently taught in most schools and the ways that the USCIS Civics test measures. Yes, students may take U.S. Civics, but are they learning how to contact their senator? Are they learning how to register to vote? No. Instead, they are focusing on history, learning about presidents and wars of the past.
Although both history and relevant civics should definitely be taught in the classroom, I believe that it is most critical that students learn about the current landscape, who their lawmakers are and how they can actively participate in our democracy now. And even if we do improve civics education, I still believe it would be unjust to force students to memorize and be tested on this information that they won’t need for other graduation requirements or in college and career.
In addition to the problems with the USCIS Civics test—which focuses too heavily on history and not enough on pertinent, usable civics information—this bill also assumes that if this new graduation requirement is placed on students, schools would automatically adjust and prepare students to complete the exam successfully.
However, we continuously see that this approach doesn’t work. Our state has already set many expectations for students that our schools are not helping them meet. For example, the majority of American Indian, English Language Learner and Latino kids aren’t passing the MCAs, and Minnesota has one of the lowest (if not the lowest) high school graduation rates in the country for Latino, Black, American Indian and Asian/Pacific Islander students.
Now, we are going to place another graduation requirement that would deter students from completing high school simply because legislators feel the information on the USCIS Civics test is basic information that every American student must know? Until we’re ready to admit that our schools are already failing too many students and make serious changes to the systems we have in place, we should not place any new burdens on students, nor imply that it’s their fault if they don’t know what some legislators think they “should” and what their schools have not taught them.
The intentions behind this bill, H.F. 1497 and S.F. 1674, might be good, but at the end of the day, it would negatively impact students, instead of impacting what really needs changing: the entire educational system. What’s more, using the USCIS Civics Test will not even accomplish legislators’ stated goal of increasing students’ knowledge of and engagement in our democracy.
Our legislators seem to want more informed and engaged citizens. So if you oppose this bill, please use your knowledge and power to speak out against it: share your concerns with your friends and family, stay tuned for opportunities to testify against it at the Capitol and tell your state senator and representative that you oppose H.F. 1497 and S.F. 1674.
Cheniqua Johnson is a proud inaugural member of the Minnesota Capitol Pathways Internship Program, which has brought her to an internship at MinnCAN to explore the world of state-level education advocacy. She is currently pursuing a dual degree in Family Social Science and Sociology of Law, Criminology & Deviance at the University of Minnesota. Upon completion of her undergraduate career, she anticipates continuing on to law school, where she’ll focus on Family Law. She is passionate about government and advocating for student voice, and is the current secretary of the University of Minnesota Black Student Union, public relations chair of the University of Minnesota TRIO Student Board and a member of the university's Undergraduate Student Advisory Board.
The MinnCAN blog allows Minnesota students, teachers, administrators, parents and advocates to share their thoughts on key education issues. Blogging fellows' and guest bloggers' views and opinions are solely their own.