I love the game Trivial Pursuit. I guess this makes sense since I studied History and I’m a Social Studies teacher. So, you may surmise that I’m pretty good at it, and like to win when I play. I get all geeked-up when I know the answers to questions, can recite gee-whiz facts, or can respond correctly to questions that have obscure references to people or events.
When I learned recently that the Kentucky General Assembly passed Senate Bill 159 (2017) to institute a mandatory Civics Test for graduates, I was pumped. The law reads that “beginning in July 2018, a student must pass a civics test composed of 100 questions in order to graduate from a public high school with a regular diploma. Each local board of education will be expected to prepare or approve an exam that must be composed of questions from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services test. Students are required to score 60% or higher and may retake the exam as many times as deemed necessary to pass the test.” The good news for teachers tasked with preparing students to pass this requirement is that these 100 questions are the same questions found on the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services test. Students will be asked to answer questions about United States History, government, holidays, geography and national symbols.
You may assume that I am seeing this through my own lens as a trivia geek, and a social studies teacher, and that my competitive spirit kicked in when I learned about the new test requirement. Maybe I am psyched about a test that requires knowledge of historical facts and events, that I can win. But I am most excited about the test because I believe we will all win with the implementation of this requirement.
Some teachers may be skeptical about my excitement, correctly thinking about the work that will be needed to prepare students for this test. The challenge for teachers will be to devise ways to teach the material on the test so students will remember it. I do not know if district-wide resources will be made available to teachers. So I want to provide two key pieces of information so you can plan accordingly. First, the law doesn’t take effect until the class of 2019 giving us all some time to plan and prepare. And secondly, and perhaps most importantly, here are ready resources available for teachers and parents to use with students to not only prepare them, but to get them into the mindset that a new graduation requirement is coming. I have spent hours perusing the online resources and have used many of these resources with English learners and native English speakers in my Social Studies classes. The resources are modern and are in formats that will allow you to integrate them into your lessons, or design free-standing lessons. Free, downloadable materials include quizzes, flashcards, and printouts you can use. There are lesson plans and links to other resources. There are videos you can show in class, or assign as homework. And, yes, there is a phone app. The best news is we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, these are high quality, free sources readily available.
And we should not treat the Civics test like a punishment or hardship or a perceived poll tax on students, or teachers. Mastering the questions on this test will enhance a student’s readiness for a life as an active citizen. Teaching this material and requiring its mastery move our students toward becoming a member of an informed electorate. The questions follow the breadth of history required for the 12th-gradeend of course exam.
We all will need to be creative and give the test weight and credibility with our students. We should talk with students about it as if it is a feather in their cap to pass it, not a weight on a chain to have to take it.
So, my fellow JCPS teachers, let’s lead the way. And as you begin to consider how you will use the resources, I want you to send me your ideas. Shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org about how you will teach this in your classroom or post photos of your kids in action on twitter and include me at @DonnaMNeary. Send me pictures of the posters or prompts you hang up in your classroom. Share your word wall or let me know the books your students check out of the library to support their learning of these facts. I will in turn share that will all of you on my twitter page. I urge you to begin planning now by talking about this in your PLCs and in faculty meetings, get the whole school on board. Ask yourself, “how might this look as a History Day project”? Make it a contest or a celebration. But make it happen for your students from K-12.
And, finally, as someone who spends my working hours with immigrants and refugees, I see this graduation requirement as an act of equity. What I mean by that is that currently, JCPS students born in the United States are not required to show their mastery, or memorization of these 100 facts about America. I believe this requirement is equitable because it will put American-born students on the same footing with immigrants to the U.S. who are required to know these 100 distinct facts about our nation if and when they seek citizenship. So, since it has been deemed necessary that naturalized citizens – many of them our JCPS students or JCPS graduates – to know these facts, then it must be true that all Americans must know these facts. This test levels the playing field and requires the same of all students in our district.
I think requiring a test on Civics for all students is equitable. I think the test is fair. Testing our students knowledge on the history and government of the United States will provide our them more tools to succeed. And as we celebrate the 241st Independence Day of our Nation, let’s think about how this will create common ground for all our students, who will be on equal footing with every other student in Kentucky. After all, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”