LINCOLN — The grumbling about requiring students to pass a 100-question civics test to graduate from Elm Creek High School has disappeared over the past three years.
In its place, student and community interest in American history and government has blossomed, Elm Creek junior Audrey Worthing told the Legislature’s Education Committee on Monday.
Community members have raised money to send eighth-graders to Washington, D.C. The high school added a mock trial team. Community service hours were added to student requirements. Older students built civics-themed carnival games for elementary school youngsters.
“We are more engaged, more involved, more knowledgeable,” Worthing said, adding that the test has not kept any student from graduating so far.
On Monday, she urged passage of a bill requiring that all Nebraska students take the same test.
“Please consider moving past your worries, politics, emotions and pass a bill that will speak loudly to all Nebraskans that we intend to preserve our republic,” Worthing said.
Legislative Bill 1069, introduced by State Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft, calls for all eighth-grade and 11th-grade students to take the civics examination given to immigrants seeking citizenship in the United States.
The test would not be required for graduation, but aggregate results would have to be reported to the state.
The measure also would update state laws regarding the teaching of Americanism and civics.
Brasch said she introduced the bill out of concern that school districts are not complying with existing state laws about teaching American history, government and values. The laws were originally passed in 1949, when the United States was in the midst of the Cold War with the former Soviet Union.
“I firmly believe that America is the greatest nation in the world,” she said. “I firmly believe that we are exceptional, and I firmly believe that the idea of American exceptionalism is being slowly and surely diluted and corrupted in many of today’s schools.”
State Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt supported the bill, saying the State Board of Education would welcome legislative guidance in defining “civic readiness” as part of improving social studies education in the state.
But he expressed concern about using the naturalization test to measure whether students meet state social studies standards, as called for in LB 1069.
Two other education leaders raised similar concerns in testifying against the bill. John Bonaiuto, with the Nebraska Association of School Boards, and Jay Sears, with the Nebraska State Education Association, cited the testing requirement as their chief objection.
Bonaiuto said state law should not specify a particular test, especially one that could be changed at the federal level.
Sears argued that schools need to do more than simply teach facts about American history and government if students are to become knowledgeable and engaged citizens.
“The naturalization exam is not a reliable and valid test to measure high-stakes decisions about students and civic knowledge,” he said. “Students will memorize the 100 questions and answers, take the test and ignore the learning and engaging piece of instruction.”
Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln also objected to the test, calling it “pathetic” and “limiting.” She said it does not adequately deal with African-American history, only asks about one woman and does not include Nebraska’s four recognized tribes in answer to a question about Native Americans.
At the end of the hearing, Brasch said she would be willing to work on finding common ground on the testing part of the bill.