The Nebraska State Board of Education weighed in against a legislative bill that would require public schools to administer the same civics test that immigrants take for citizenship.

Board members voted 8-0 Thursday to oppose LB 399, though Board President John Witzel said their position could change if the bill is amended.

Parts of the bill that rewrite the state’s Americanism statute are acceptable, he said.

“We’ve all heard that there’s too many tests, and this may be just another test,” Witzel said. “Our standards cover everything that is in that test.”

LB 399 specifies testing students with questions from the civics portion of the naturalization exam of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The naturalization test would not be an official state assessment, like the annual math, science and English language arts tests that public school students take each spring. A student’s score would be reported to parents. Schools would have to administer the test by eighth grade and again by 11th grade.

Proponents, including some military veterans, have said the naturalization test, while not perfect, would help to kick-start civics education in the schools without putting much burden on teachers. They said the country is in political turmoil and needs to get back to teaching the basics about the country, its constitution and history.

Although the state approves social studies standards, Nebraska has no social studies assessment. School districts are required to either adopt the state standards or a set of equal or greater rigor.

At a hearing on the bill last week, supporters said that without a social studies assessment, state officials have no idea if students are mastering the standards.

Opponents said, however, that lawmakers shouldn’t mandate curriculum and that the naturalization test questions are not aligned to the standards.

Maureen Nickels, vice president of the State Board of Education, said the naturalization test is the hang-up in the bill.

“It’s just rote memorization, and that’s not good teaching,” she said.

“I don’t have a problem with the rest of the bill,” Nickels said.

The bill would substantially amend the Americanism law, doing away with the term “Americanism” and replacing it with “American Civics.”

Under current law, school boards must appoint a “committee on Americanism” to review curriculum for compliance with the Americanism statute. The bill would rename them “American Civics” committees.

Committee members would still review a district’s curriculum, ensuring that it aligns with state social studies standards and “teaches and assesses foundational knowledge in civics, history, economics, financial literacy and geography.”

The committees would have to hold at least two public meetings a year, taking public testimony at one. They would have to keep detailed minutes and publish a report on their findings and recommendations.

Nickels said she doesn’t have a problem with individual school districts choosing to make use of the naturalization test.

But mandating it would infringe on local control, she said. Nickels said no school administrator she’s talked to wants the test.

“It’s always a question I ask,” she said. “ ‘What do you think of the civics issue around the immigration test?’ I have yet to hear any of them say it’s OK. It is ‘No, don’t go there.’ ”

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Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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