Should Competency In Civics Be a Graduation Requirement?

(Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy, David A. Atkinson) Gee, Ollie, nothing hard about that one.  Surely it should, in the name of sustaining a healthy and vibrant democracy.  Of course, how to achieve the desired level of overall competency and certify its validity conjures up that old bugaboo, the devil in the details.

To test, or not to test, has become one of the more hotly debated issues in the ever-expanding field of education controversies.  This disagreement has taken on greater intensity given the rising prevalence of tying testing to graduation.

A column several weeks ago by a journalist and author turned college professor made a strong argument for mandating a civics test as a high school graduation requirement.  He cites the usual depressing statistics about the deplorable levels of knowledge college students display toward American history, and throws some jaw-dropping classroom anecdotes of student unawareness into the indictment.  The columnist is a thoughtful veteran observer of the political and education arenas with whom I frequently agree.

Because I endlessly enjoy history and constantly tout the responsibilities of informed civic participation, my first reaction was to give this recommendation a hearty thumbs-up.  On further reflection, however, my enthusiasm started to feel misplaced.  The suspicion crept in that we might be attacking the wrong end of the equation.

I am ever mindful of the classic admonition of journalist H.L. Mencken: “For every problem, there is one solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”  Could that admonition apply to a civics test for graduation?

Establishing a civics test as a graduation requirement essentially blames students for not knowing material that many schools have deemphasized or sporadically taught.  Students will be tested on once standard instruction now given short shrift because the concentration is on other high-stakes tests.  Maybe adults are failing logical thinking.  We are not figuring the likely outcome of this mandate.

There are practical hurdles to take into account.  Developing a statewide test and gaining acceptance of it is a grueling process in the best of times.  In our charged partisan political climate, which everyone agrees is getting hotter and stormier, securing agreement on a generally perceived unbiased test looms as a challenge.  Then it must run the gauntlet past the no-more-testing crowd.

Beyond that, practical questions persist.  Say Pennsylvania was to require such a test.  Is there any reason to suspect students will show a much better proficiency rate than they do on existing tests?  That would seem the hope, but it is not as though students flip a mental switch and suddenly the knowledge registers.  How on the fly is class time going to be reallocated and courses revived to address the new requirement?  Plus, what happens if four-fifths of the test takers fail?  What are we going to do with those students?  Subject them to fast and furious civics remediation?  Would it not be better and more cost effective to do this on the front end rather than the back end?  Ah yes, the law of unintended consequences has a strong kick.

It is hard to fault the premise behind testing.  Student competency in civics is by every report running at indefensibly low levels.  The same can be said about the time and resources being devoted to civics instruction.  Sure, there are still commendable civics hotspots to be found, but the trend remains downward.  The choice here is of corrective method, not of moving the goalposts.

Certainly, we must begin pumping life and energy into civics instruction.  We can underscore the importance of citizenship and civic responsibility by paying more attention to significant landmark observances such as Constitution Day.  Well-designed programs that fully engage students and stimulate their interest already exist.  Commendably, museum operators and historical preservation groups have established programs that not only teach kids essential history, but involve them in activities that bring joy to learning for people young and old.  These initiatives are readily adaptable to civics instruction.  All it takes is priority, time, and money – concededly the ingredients lacking lately.

Constructive encouragement is helpful too, since we often counterproductively discourage the young from participation.  Ever watch what happens when young people decide to protest and drive home their opinions?  Some critics dismiss them as naïve, ignorant, or puppets of devious special interests.  Others complain they are disrupting the order of things and showing disrespect for the rules and conventions of society.  Yet others flat out disparage and denigrate them.  So we want the young to learn, but not to exercise their rights of speech and assembly and grievance, unless they do so according to our standards and conventions?  No wonder this train of thought quickly runs off the rails.

Young people could be forgiven for wondering when adults are going to show the same levels of discernment and excellence in our election choices and policy decisions  and public discourse that we expect from them.  Do as we say, rather than as we do, gains less traction with each generation.

Make no mistake, this is not playing a fresh round of the blame-the-schools game.  Rather, our conflicting policies and the lack of trust among players inside and outside the schools have resulted in this unsatisfactory state of affairs.  Nor do I seek to discredit either the purpose or value of testing.  Tests are always going to be an element of assessing progress and evidencing accountability.  But it does not follow that tests are like antibiotics, the go-to prescription for every educational ill.

We know the problem, and why it exists.  We should start applying remedies as kids begin their schooling, not after they have been shortchanged for twelve years.  When civics is again prominent in the curriculum, then testing can fairly measure competency, rather than confirming deficiency.

P.S. When someone insists adults take a refresher test on history and civics, it might include questions such as this: Remember when the History Channel actually featured history programs?

David A. Atkinson is an Associated of the Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies