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We need more than just a civics exam

David Hill

(Greenfield) Daily Reporter

Steve Landram and Reed Jones were two teachers whose classrooms came alive with the lessons they were sharing.

Mr. Landram, who taught history; and Mr. Jones, who taught government, had a way a bringing a little magic to those dangerously dry topics in the long hours after lunch in the mid-1970s at Eastern Hancock High School. Mr. Landram was a Civil War buff, and he talked about Fredericksburg and Antietam as if they had happened the week before. Mr. Jones helped us navigate the aftermath of Watergate, and he made sure we understood the importance – and the durability – of the institutions that were being so severely tested.

I thought about two of my high school teachers last week as I read about a bill in the Indiana General Assembly that’s designed to bolster students’ understanding of civics. Senate Bill 132, which has passed in the Senate and is now being considered in the House, would require every high school student to take a civics exam based on the test immigrants take to become citizens. Students would have to get at least 60 percent of the answers correct to earn a diploma.

“We have a deficiency in government and civics knowledge in America today, and I think it’s getting worse,” the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, was quoted as saying.

We definitely need better civics education. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 24 percent of high school students are proficient on the topic. The Annenburg Foundation released a study that found that a third of students couldn’t name even one branch of government.

An exam would certainly raise the bar on, say, understanding what an amendment does or knowing the line of succession to the presidency. But do we really need another exam? Students already spend hours taking standardized tests. High school students have to pass end-of-course assessments to graduate. All this is done to be sure our schools are performing up to standards. Not necessarily to solidify knowledge in young people’s minds.

A new exam, of course, would command teachers to figure out a way to cram more lessons into their 180-day race to get students over all their hurdles. This doesn’t sound like the best way to inspire young people to study democracy. And by study, I mean examining the beauty of compromise; respecting the opinions of others; and what it means to govern.

We have to start somewhere, however. Parents can help, of course, by encouraging discussions about what happens at city hall. We also can examine how existing government classes – which already are required, are taught. Programs such as Hoosier Boys State and Hoosier Girls State – summer camps for civics education – could be expanded and perhaps incorporated into curriculum. The Statehouse page program, which brings young people into the halls of state government to work side-by-side by state lawmakers, could be expanded as well. Students perhaps could earn extra credit for attending local government meetings.

Most of all, they need inspiration. Teachers can provide it if they’re given the chance, as Mr. Landram and Mr. Jones did all those years ago. Teaching to yet another test might yield a 60 percent score on a citizenship exam. But it won’t teach them citizenship.