Posted: Saturday, January 16, 2016 12:53 am | Updated: 1:18 pm, Sat Jan 16, 2016.
ELM CREEK — Elm Creek students will be required to pass a U.S. civics test before they’re allowed to graduate.The Elm Creek Board of Education unanimously approved the policy Monday at the board’s regular monthly meeting. The policy will be adopted at the board’s February meeting and will go into effect in the 2016-2017 school year.
The test will have 100 questions about American history and politics, and students must correctly answer at least 70 percent of the questions.
Elm Creek Superintendent Dean Tickle said the school has been trying to make the civics test part of graduation requirements, but hadn’t had much luck in moving the policy forward until three Elm Creek freshmen stepped up this year.
Audrey Worthing, Sydney Hubbard and Anna Hoffman launched an initiative to improve Nebraska students’ knowledge of American civics in November 2015 as part of their annual FCCLA project.
“It’s been gratifying to see a student-led initiative,” Tickle said. “It is a cornerstone of what we want to accomplish at Elm Creek, of making good citizens. They’ve been helpful in getting this school moving in the right direction.”
In addition to creating a mobile website that schools can use as a civics test resource, the girls have become statewide advocates of making the civics test a graduation requirement.
They presented the idea to the Nebraska State School Board Association last fall, and a large majority of attendees agreed that there was a crisis in civics, Worthing said, and the girls have presented at other schools.
They also stayed in contact with the Joe Foss Institute, an organization that has successfully advocated in nine other states to get civics test legislation passed, in hopes that Nebraska lawmakers could become convinced to bring the issue to table during the 2016 Legislative session.
They got their wish Monday when state Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha introduced LB868, which would require that students be tested using questions drawn from the test given to people seeking citizenship in the United States. As Elm Creek requires, students would have to answer at least 70 percent of the questions correctly, but they would be allowed to take the test several times.
State Sen. Rick Kolowski of Omaha raised concerns that because Nebraska students now have to take an American government class to graduate, LB868 would be redundant.
But Hoffman said the current requirements aren’t doing Nebraska students much good when it comes to retaining civics knowledge. When they gave the citizenship test to 200 students at five schools last fall, 83 percent failed the test.
“It’s true that all schools have to have their students pass a government history class, but they’re not learning what they essentially need,” Hoffman said. “Not many students know the fundamentals for civics. They know the fundamentals of reading, math and science. … Why can’t there be one for history, too?”
Tickle agreed with his students.
“I think it goes back to the idea of what’s the purpose of a public school,” he said. “Obviously, we want our kids to be able to read and write, to do math and problem solve. They can use all those skills as good citizens and be aware. We want our kids to be tuned it, to look at both sides of an issue, to have appropriate disagreement and discourse. If we can get kids to think like that, we’ve done our job.”
Tickle said the trio has done a great job of drawing attention to the issue. Rep. Adrian Smith visited the school and that staff from Sen. Ben Sasse and Sen. Deb Fischer’s offices have been in contact with the girls to encourage them to keep working on the project.
Hoffman encourages people to contact their representatives in support of LB868, which is in the Education Committee. If it comes out of committee, she, Hubbard and Worthing plan to go to Lincoln to testify in favor of the bill.
“It really is an important issue,” Hoffman said.