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Urdahl aims to make civics test a graduation requirement

Next year Minnesota students could start facing a 100-question battery of civics exam questions as a requirement for high school graduation, if a bill sponsored by Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, becomes law.

Dean Urdahl

Dean Urdahl

The questions are the same ones the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services uses to test applicants for citizenship, in keeping with a national effort to introduce the test in all 50 states in time for the 230th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 2017.

The House Education Innovation Policy Committee held an informational hearing on the bill last week. Last session, Urdahl said, his bill “percolated”: It was introduced in the House and Senate (where Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, chair of the Senate Education Committee, is the sponsor) but didn’t get a hearing.

Urdahl, a former social studies teacher who has written books on Minnesota history and is a force behind the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission, said knowledge of civics is critical to a functioning democracy, yet a focus on core subjects and preparation for standardized tests has largely muscled civics out of the classroom.

“It’s discouraging,” Urdahl said. “We live in a republic. We have a democracy. Our system of government depends on civic engagement.”

While he hopes for broad support, Urdahl also anticipates two basic objections. The first is that students take too many tests now, and education leaders are trying to have fewer tests, not more. Urdahl’s reply is that the civics exam doesn’t have to be a net testing increase. Minnesota already has a half-credit civics requirement, he said, so let the required exam be part of a school’s current civics testing, not another test.

Urdahl adds that the deeper concern isn’t the number of tests: Instead, the questions should be, “What tests are we giving? Are we testing what we really want to test, what they need to know?”

And with Congress poised to reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), schools will have more autonomy and opportunity to make changes. “You could change the number of tests,” he said.

The second objection Urdahl expects is to a high-stakes test that students must pass to graduate from high school. He points to the exam’s relatively low bar (a 60 percent score) and a span of six years over which students may retake the test, as well as exceptions for students’ individualized education plans (IEPs) to allow for physical and mental disabilities.

Schools would have broad leeway in administering the test, even doing a question a day or taking other creative approaches.

Urdahl said he disagreed with a fiscal note indicating the bill would add to the state budget. “I wouldn’t think it should be much cost at all,” he said — what costs there might be would be borne by local school districts.

Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said the organization has concerns about Urdahl’s bill in view of its interest in reducing the number of standardized tests. The group wants accountability and growth in student achievement, Amoroso said, but “we’re not sure standardized tests are the best way.”

Below are samples from the 100 questions people seeking to become naturalized citizens are asked. (Note that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers choose as many as 10 questions for each applicant):

What is the capital of the United States?

  • Washington
  • Washington, D.C.
  • New York City
  • Chicago

What happened at the Constitutional Convention?

  • The Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution
  • USA became independent
  • Founding Fathers discovered the Red Coats might be approaching
  • John Hancock Died

When must all men register for the Selective Service?

  • 16
  • 18
  • 21
  • 12

How many justices are on the Supreme Court?

  • 9
  • 13
  • 2
  • 5

What do we show loyalty to when we say the Pledge of Allegiance?

  • The Flag
  • Our Parents
  • The President


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