Few things are more cringe-inducing than watching one of those “Politically-Challenged” YouTube videos in which clueless college students struggle to answer “Who won the Civil War?” or identify the U.S. vice president, but have no problem naming the reality TV show that featured a woman named “Snooki.”
Well, if you thought the new state-mandated civics test, which high school seniors must pass to graduate beginning next year, would uncover a similarly embarrassing abundance of ignorance, guess again.
A number of local school districts already have begun testing their juniors — and in some cases younger students — and the results, they say, are encouraging.
“Eighty-six percent of our students have passed; we’re very excited about that,” said Melanie Stewart, director of student performance and improvement for Milwaukee Public Schools, which has tested more than 800 juniors at five high schools since its online test went live March 1.
The district is asking all juniors to take the online test by April 15 so it will have a baseline for bringing students who didn’t pass up to speed during their senior year.
“We have full expectation we’re going to have a 100% passing rate for all of our students,” Stewart said.
The Legislature imposed the graduation requirement last year as part of the 2015-’17 biennial budget, despite widespread opposition from public and private school advocates, the American Civil Liberties Union, disability rights advocates and others.
The measure, modeled on a national campaign by the Arizona-based Joe Foss Institute, requires all seniors — in public, parental choice and charter schools — to correctly answer 60 of the 100 questions in the civics section of the test given by the U.S. government to immigrants seeking citizenship in order to graduate. At least one state has upped the ante, requiring a 70% score to pass.
Wisconsin students with disabilities also must take the exam, though they can opt out through their IEPs, or individualized educational plans. And those who take it are not required to pass.
That irks some educators and parents, who say it signals lawmakers’ diminished expectations for students with disabilities, many of which would have no bearing on such a test.
“It really lowers the bar for Wisconsin as far as expectations,” said Brenda Turner, director of teaching and learning at Nicolet High School in Glendale, which administered the exam to all juniors as part of their American history class. “It’s telling our kids with IEPs that they’re not important.”
Nicolet’s juniors — at least those without disabilities — did exceptionally well. Only two students failed the exam, according to Turner, and nine aced it with perfect scores.
Arrowhead High School in Waukesha County gave the test to 1,577 students in grades nine through 11, and only 10 of the students who were required to pass it did not, said Sue Casetta, director of learning.
Arrowhead’s social studies teachers had spent the first week or so of the semester reviewing some of the content for students who had questions, she said.
MPS’ score included students with disabilities. Nicolet and Arrowhead did not provide data on disabled students’ scores because their numbers are small, and data could point to specific students.
MPS is offering resources to its social studies teachers to bring the remaining 14% of its students up to speed, and considering an option that would allow students to take it with a proctor over the summer.
One of the challenges, Stewart said, is accommodating its more than 6,000 students whose primary language is not English. It’s also offering the test in Spanish, Arabic, Hmong, Somali, Burmese and Karen.
Michelle Wade, social studies curriculum specialist for MPS, said many of its students are getting a kick out of the test.
“A lot of them leave with a smile on their face, because it’s instant feedback. They know immediately how they did, and we don’t always see that with standardized testing.”
Wisconsin is one of nine states to have mandated the test, and 24 others are considering it, said Lucian Spataro, who chairs the educational initiative for the civics project for the Joe Foss Institute.
Casetta, of Arrowhead, takes no issue with the sentiment behind the exam. But, like educators who opposed the bill at the Legislature, she said in an email to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that it’s too simplistic to capture the complexities of the governmental process or the importance of a politically informed and engaged citizenry.
“Perhaps,” she said, “students demonstrating the importance of staying informed, voting, and getting involved in local, state, and national issues as vital to maintaining a strong democracy is more productive than taking a 100 question test.”
Annysa Johnson covers K-12 education in southeastern Wisconsin.