Jamestown High School freshmen are passing the newly required civics test, and teachers say the students embrace the idea that a knowledgeable citizenry is the foundation of a strong democracy.
Following Arizona, North Dakota is the second state to require public high school students to pass a civics test as a condition of graduation. It was passed by the North Dakota Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jack Dalrymple in 2015.
“The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction requires 2017 graduates to score at least 60 percent on the 100-question test and the requirement will be 70 percent or more to pass after 2017,” said Bill Nold, JHS principal.
JHS uses an open-ended, fill-in-the-blank test versus the optional multiple-choice format, said JHS social studies teacher Marchel Krieger. Not one freshman scored 70 percent or higher on the pre-test given on the first day of class, and most were under 45 percent, but 95 percent of freshmen scored over 70 percent at the end of the semester, he said.
This class of 2019 is already passing with scores over 70 percent when all that is required is 60 percent, said JHS social studies teacher Dan Vainonen. Starting in the lower grades helps make sure that retesting occurs several times before the senior year to help avoid a graduation issue, he said.
There is no grading of the test other than pass or fail, but a student who does not pass is not eligible to graduate, Vainonen said. Students may take the civics class and the civics test from grade seven on up and passing the civics class at any point will satisfy the graduation requirement.
A one-semester civics class is a requirement for ninth-graders and an elective for juniors and seniors, Nold said. The class uses the same “Learn About the United States” study manual of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to teach basic fundamentals of U.S. history and government to new Americans.
“I took the pretest and couldn’t believe how much I didn’t know, but once I went through the class the test was so much easier,” said Kylie Mitchell, freshman.
Civics is the study of what it means to be an American citizen, Vainonen said. The course covers democratic principles, federal, state and local government issues, the political process, the American economy and what it means to be an active participant in society.
“We just want them to understand the democratic process and how the branches of government work and check each other,” Krieger said.
Some principles of American democracy questions on the civics test include: “What is the rule of law?” and “What is freedom of religion?” Questions on government ask, “What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?” and “Who is Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court right now?”
Some questions on citizen’s rights and responsibilities ask for longer replies to describe one of the four amendments to the Constitution about who can vote. It also asks students to name one of the writers of the Federalist Papers who supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution.
Mitchell said passing the civics test is a requirement to graduate but the class becomes something more to students.
“I think it’s a very good class for us to take,” Mitchell said. “We are learning about becoming proper citizens and more about our country, which is awesome, but I think this is really beneficial and something everyone should know.”
Jessica Schmitz, a freshman, said other classes teach how the branches of government work and while she had learned the duties of the executive, legislative and judicial branches, it was not until this class that there was an opportunity to learn how the actors in those roles carried out those functions.
“I guess I am really into politics and government and this class really clarified all of that for me, and there was also a little bit about economics,” Schmitz said. “I found the class really interesting and it definitely helped me with the state test at the end.”
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