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What Will Students Learn from Noem’s Civics Test That They Aren’t Already Learning? No One Knows.

Amidst a lull in audience questions at today’s Aberdeen crackerbarrel, I took the mic after a question about abolishing the federal Department of Education (no, really, the Legislature hasn’t funded nursing homes, fixed juvenile justice, or written a budget, but they’re taking to time debate that laughable old Rounds line) and asked two questions about House Bill 1066, Governor Kristi Noem’s proposed high school civics test:

  1. Would legislators be willing to take the civics test, publish their scores, and use those scores as the benchmark for students taking Noem’s test?
  2. What educational outcomes would such a test achieve that are not currently being achieved by the efforts our school districts are making right now without this state mandate?

Three legislators—Senator Susan Wismer (D-1/Britton), Senator Al Novstrup (R-3/Aberdeen), and Representative Drew Dennert (R-3/Aberdeen)—rose to respond. None of them answered either question.

Senator Wismer seemed to avoid directly responding to my points to make her broader point that whatever problem motivated everyone to stand up and cheer Governor Noem’s civics rhetoric during her State of the State Address in January has sprung from a larger decline in expectations, fueled in large part by an emphasis on sports (she said bravely, with basketball players from Warner High School whom everyone cheered at the opening of the crackerbarrel in the room). She spoke of voters not being engaged, but she missed an opportunity to hit the nail on the head and say a 50-question multiple-guess test won’t bring young people to the polls.

Senator Novstrup claimed a score from some sample test but not the minimum 60-question test Noem proposes. He did not say whether legislators’ scores should serve as a benchmark for student graduation requirements. He modeled bad behavior for students, claiming that the one question he missed was a dumb question rather than acknowledging that he doesn’t know everything. He proposed a simplistic test with obviously wrong multiple-guess options and said even a fill-in-the-blank test would be too hard, indicating that he does not envision any test that would engage the higher-order thinking necessary to effective civic participation.

Representative Dennert just got up for the laugh line.

None of these legislators addressed the fundamental question of what should constitute the basic level of achievement in civics we expect of high school graduates.

None of these legislators addressed what we want students to learn from a civics test or what specific civics knowledge they aren’t learning right now.

These responses seem typical of the general debate about Governor Noem’s civics bill. Making kids take a test sounds good… to people who played school in the garage with the neighbor kids but haven’t done much real teaching. Even Al, who sometimes brags about having been a teacher once upon a time, showed a superficial approach to testing that suggests we’re all better off thanks to his choice to leave education.

Senator Wismer wisely opposes HB 1066. Senator Novstrup gave us no good reason to support it, and no evidence that he understands what educational purpose Governor Noem’s plan serves. Rep. Dennert voted for a watered-down version in the House; if Noem’s bill hobbles out of the Senate, Dennert will have to decide whether he supports a bigger test that still hasn’t been tied to clear educational outcomes.


  1. Porter Lansing 2019-03-02 19:37

    Hey, Al. I missed the same one you did. I had to guess, too. Why was it a dumb question? Is the answer 26? Let me ask SIRI. No. It’s 27. Ms. Wismer is right about retention. I should have remembered that. But, if bring my phone wherever I go, SIRI doesn’t forget and I can work on new ideas, instead.

  2. Kal Lis 2019-03-02 20:24


    Excellent questions. The longer the debate about Noem’s test or the stickers or whatever other civics proposals have gone on, the more cynical I become.

    It seems as if Noem et al were hoping for a wedge issue that would make supporters look patriotic and opponents look as if they hated God, apple pie, and kittens. It didn’t play out that way and now everyone is stuck with a political stunt gone wrong.

    While the actual test may not take long to complete, schools will spend an inordinate amount of time teaching to the test if the scores are going to be reported. As Wismer said, something will have to give.

    Knowing who the vice president is doesn’t mean the person will vote, educate himself or herself on the issues, or be active in the community. The first question any policy proposal should ask is “what problem is this proposal supposed to fix?’ So far no one has answered that question.

  3. Roger Cornelius 2019-03-02 20:28

    Noem’s civic test legislation seems to be a huge waste of time, seriously.
    The problem is that we have a bunch of uneducated legislators trying to develop a standardized civics test for high school students.
    The civics test should be remanded to the Dept. of Education and left for the educators to develop.

  4. Porter Lansing 2019-03-02 20:31

    Kal Lis .., Knowing who the vice president is doesn’t mean the person will vote, educate himself or herself on the issues, or be active in the community.
    It seems many in SD don’t care to know any more about an election than , “All I have to do is vote for all the Republicans and go to the bar before I go back to work”

  5. Debbo 2019-03-02 20:49

    I don’t believe Nosetrap even took the test. If he can pass out thousands of campaign brochures pledging transparency, then laugh in front of his constituents when caught deliberately violating that pledge, his word isn’t worth a damn.

    He may have glanced at the test enough to see there was a question about the amendment count, but that’s it.

    Nostrap has zero, zilch, nil credibility. He’s a proven liar, proof he laughingly provided himself.

  6. Kal Lis 2019-03-02 21:36


    If I understand your comment correctly, you’re advocating that the test contain a question like this:

    In South Dakota, which of the following groups benefits most from liquor sales on election day?
    A) Moonshiners
    B) Bar Owners
    C) Republican Candidates
    D) Lyft Drivers

  7. jerry 2019-03-02 21:43

    As I recall, Government or civics was taught in my South Dakota public high school as a class. The teacher of that class was paid for that curriculum by the school district as approved by the State of South Dakota, that we were tested on.

    I think that if NOem got the standing ovation for that declaration, then she should not have a problem in getting the additional funding to pay the teachers or an additional teacher to teach the class. Al is for it, the other comedian is for it and I’m sure that if this were to be the case of a hiring of a teacher or to pay one more to teach another class, then Ms. Susan would change her opinion and vote it in.

    Build that Class! Build that Class!

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-03-02 22:09

    Thanks, Kal Lis! And where did I learn to formulate questions like that? Where do students learn to ask critical questions like that on policy matters?

    High school debate, the best civics class ever.

    Funny thing is, I never took a debate class. I never took a “debate test”. In high school debate, we assess learning by performance, constant formative experiences in which students put their multidisciplinary skills to use in verbal conflict… and in which all participants, whether they go undefeated or lose every round at the tournament, learn something and come out better equipped to act as responsible, inquiring citizens.

    Why do we have kids do debate? Because they learn civics.

    What will students learn from taking Kristi’s quiz that they aren’t learning by better means right now?

  9. Barbara J 2019-03-02 22:10

    Phil Jensen, at today’s cracker barrel in Rapid City: “I have a solution, mandatory civics testing for voters.”

    Which begs the question, If you failed it, would you automatically be ineligible for office? Inquiring minds want to know……

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-03-02 22:21

    Jerry, we still require that civics class, or “American Government.” Every student needs to take it to graduate high school. Every student in South Dakota thus takes some sort of “civics test,” designed by a teacher or teachers in each civics classroom to assess whether the students learned enough civics to pass the class.

    Some of those tests may be lazy tests like Al Novstrup proposes in the video above. Some of those tests may be multiple exercises in multiple-choice, true/false, and fill-in-the-blank guessing, totaling hundreds of questions over the semester. Some of those assessments may be essays, posters, speeches, debates, panel discussions, group projects, service learning, or numerous other more challenging and authentic assessments far beyond Al’s apparent ken (or is it Al’s barbie?).

    There, thus, is the basis of my question. Every student in South Dakota already must complete multiple assessments in civics to graduate from high school. What learning does Kristi’s test offer that isn’t already covered?

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-03-02 22:22

    If no one can show learning outcomes that come uniquely from Kristi’s test, then Roger C is right: Kristi’s test is a waste of time.

  12. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-03-02 22:28

    Holy cow, Barbara—was Senator Jensen trying to draw a civil rights/literacy test critique?

    Jensen and Trump really do want us to go back to the 1950s, to undo civil rights law, to put people of color back in subordinacy to white folks.

    The ignorantly smug Jensen-Haugaard majority can’t age out of politics and be replaced by the coming diversity wave fast enough.

  13. jerry 2019-03-02 22:34

    Maybe NOem is as ignorant as I am about “American Government” classes still being taught in school as civics. I thought they were no longer taught with all of this goings on. Seems like Al and the other guy were clueless as well. Dang it, me and NOem… somehow, that just doesn’t seem quite right. Oh well, I’ll wear the dunce hat if she and twiddle dee and twiddle dumb will.

  14. Jason 2019-03-02 22:38

    Cory wrote:

    Jensen and Trump really do want us to go back to the 1950s, to undo civil rights law, to put people of color back in subordinacy to white folks.

    Are you saying people of color aren’t intelligent Cory?

    If so, that is a lie.

  15. Jason 2019-03-02 22:44

    I am against a civics test and for a logic test and a common sense test for graduation.

  16. jerry 2019-03-02 22:46

    Jensen is saying this with his clear dog whistle. Funny thing though, most of his voters cannot read so they would flunk the test.

  17. Scott 2019-03-02 22:55

    I would rather see mandatory drivers education required in SD. Mandatory personal finance education would also be good.

    I doubt anybody is going to get into trouble for not knowing their civics. However not being able to handle your finances gets many people in trouble. Also poor driving skills can get people killed.

  18. Roger Cornelius 2019-03-02 23:11

    A common sense test?

    How exactly would that work?

  19. Debbo 2019-03-02 23:29

    Roger, when the SDGOP says “common sense” about anything, that means they have no idea.

  20. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-03-03 07:20

    Jason, what would a “logic test” entail, and what would students learn from it that they do not already learn from the activities and assessments currently implemented in 149 school district curricula across the state?

  21. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-03-03 07:21

    Jason, what would a “logic test” entail, and what would students learn from it that they do not already learn from the activities and assessments currently implemented in 149 school district curricula across the state?

    (Note: you’ve seen how the responses given by Wismer, Novstrup, and Dennert did not answer the second half of each of these inquiries, so please outdo them.)

  22. mike from iowa 2019-03-03 07:33

    “I have a solution, mandatory civics testing for voters.”

    Means wingnuts would teach to the “R.” (the correct answer is “R”)

  23. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-03-03 07:45

    Scott raises an excellent point about priorities. It’s hard to say which skill is more imperative for living a good life. If a new graduate is a bad driver, she could get herself killed on the highway tomorrow. If she’s clueless about personal finance, she could end up bankrupt in a few years. If she didn’t get a good civics education… well, the harms seem less immediate and personal.

    But let’s generalize the impacts of lacking education. If everyone graduates with bad driving skills, we’re all in danger on the highways. If everyone graduates with bad finance skills, the economy will suffer. If everyone graduates with poor civics skills, democracy suffers and we end up with idiots, demagogues, and tyrants in office.

    (Wait, I get it: everyone cheered Noem’s call for a civics test because, even if Republicans won’t admit it, they recognize that the Trump Presidency, a Simpsons joke come to life, is a sign of that civics education is failing. Here’s my Phil Jensen civics literacy test: “Did you vote for Donald Trump? If so, you don’t get to vote in 2020.”)

    Civics education is important, but civics is clearly not the only thing students need to learn. Aristotle (yo, Kal Lis! Check me!) might argue that it is the most important thing students need to learn, since human virtue and civilization exist only in the context of a community, thus requiring that, to be fully human, we all must become skilled at the art of living together in community (that’s civics, right?). But from that Aristotelian view, civics is not some unique and separate course we take sometime during high school. Civics is a culminatory synthesis of everything we learn about language, history, science, health, arts, finance, and even driving (think about how driving is a civic act) to guide us in building and sustaining a functional community.

    If we need tests to show kids are ready to graduate and help build and sustain community, then we need tests in all of those component skills as well as a test to show they can synthesize those skills into civic practice. But that culminatory civics test won’t be a 50-item multiple-guess joke test designed by popularity-contest winners like Al Novstrup who aren’t certified to teach. It will be a richer and more challenging assessment, created and evaluated by local educators who tailor their work to their students and their communities.

  24. RICHARD SCHRIEVER 2019-03-03 09:35

    Roger – I’m pretty sure that Jason’s definition of “common sense” means anyone seeing things the way he does passes. Dissention fails. It actually fits the base definition of “common sense’ – I.E., having a “common” (shared) “sense” (feeling) about something.

    It has nothing whatever to do with any actual verifiable knowledge of anything beyond that shared feeling about it

  25. RICHARD SCHRIEVER 2019-03-03 09:36

    Jason – Trump actually wants to take us back to the pre-income tax 19th century – not the height of the 20th – where tax rates were 90% on high income.

  26. Jason 2019-03-03 09:49


    Richard provides a great example of what one of the logic and common sense questions could be.

    The question is:

    At one point the US had a top marginal tax rate of 90%. Did anyone ever pay an effective tax rate of 90%?

    Richard would have failed that question and most likely would have had to take summer school.

  27. jerry 2019-03-03 10:30

    Gerrymandering seems like a great lesson in civics. Maybe the 6,000 voters who live at one address in Box Elder, South Dakota, would be a great place to start.

    “The answer is that we find these people in congressional districts with boundaries drawn to guarantee one-party rule. According to the Cook Political Report, 165 of the 197 seats currently held by Republicans are already safely locked up for the GOP in 2020; by contrast, only four of those seats are considered toss-ups.

    In safe districts, politics doesn’t work the way you were taught in grade school. Reasonable people don’t meet in the middle. Instead, the purists and activists in the dominant party choose a nominee, and that person steam-rolls to victory.

    Once an incumbent occupies a safe seat, the future narrows to a single imperative: no primaries. As long as the activists are happy, and as long as they snuff out any insurrection that might be stirring back home, the job is secure. Seniority accumulates. Power grows. Life is good.” Washington Post 03/01/2019

    Maybe South Dakota students could then understand why their parents are broke with no place to sell their commodities. When power grows, pocketbooks shrink to offset that growth.

  28. Porter Lansing 2019-03-03 11:05

    Jason … Do you know what marginal refers to? Of course some people paid that tax rate. However, as usual, Jason is either ignorant or misleading. Both options make what he says highly unimportant.
    It was a tax rate that was applied to the last dollar earned. The U.S. tax system is based on brackets. The top marginal tax rate applies to the highest bracket. Income is taxed at higher rates as more is earned. For the duration of Eisenhower’s presidency, that rate affected individuals making $200,000 or more per year or couples making $400,000 and above per year.
    In 2015 dollars, that’s roughly $1.7 million for an individual and $3.4 million for a couple.

  29. Jason 2019-03-03 11:09

    Porter would have failed the question also.

  30. Porter Lansing 2019-03-03 11:17

    That’s what I said, simple guy. However, “that much” means they were higher in the 50’s and taxes on the rich are too low, currently.

  31. Debbo 2019-03-03 12:23

    An AP government and politics class in New Jersey took on a project to secure the release of information about long ago civil rights cases that were never prosecuted without having to go through a separate FOIA for each one.

    “They drafted legislation requiring all the civil rights cold-case files to be collected and released to the public, without the bureaucracy and delay of the Freedom of Information Act. The class lobbied for sponsors to get the bill out of committees in both chambers of Congress, have it voted on and passed just before Christmas, and then signed into law last month by President Donald Trump.”

    They were able to secure the assistance of then prosecutor Doug Jones of Alabama. He said,

    “It is such a wonderful story about how government should work on many levels, from students in high school all the way to the president’s desk.”

    The students still have to work at getting the $10mil the CBO estimates it will cost.

    That, Gov. Noem, Al Nosetrap and SDGOP, is how you do civics.

  32. Roger Cornelius 2019-03-03 14:04

    Is there a distinct difference between “common sense and logic”?

  33. Debbo 2019-03-04 12:14

    Here’s another way to teach civic participation. Some Minnesota high schools are offering letters for community service.

    “The community letter is as rigorous as any extracurricular. Students must log 150 hours of volunteer time in 12 consecutive months. Half those hours must be focused in a specific area or cause.

    ” At the end of the year, students must complete a reflection project that can range from essays to artwork to a presentation. Students also are required to get two letters of recommendation.”

  34. Porter Lansing 2019-03-04 14:12

    What a superb idea, Minnesota. Reminds of the days of Kennedy, when we were taught to ask what we could do for our country.

  35. o 2019-03-04 14:56

    Unfortunately, in Jason’s world, “common sense” means devoid of fact and evidence. “Common sense” is right-wing -speak for dogma driven. “Common sense” tells us there is no global warming if there is snow on the ground; “common sense” tells us that the rich will trickle down their income if we just cut their taxes and give them more income; “common sense” tells us that if guns are dangerous, we should have MORE of them . . .

  36. Donald Pay 2019-03-04 17:25

    Debbo has something along the lines of what is needed: participatory civics for high schoolers. That, of course, flies in the face of what South Dakota Republicans want. They want comatose citizens, so they propose another boring bubble test.

    We’ve discussed this several times before on DFP over the years or maybe it was on Madville Times, or maybe it was way back on Mount Blogmore. Everyone thinks civics is a good idea, but few have an actual plan that might actually make high schoolers excited about learning it. Certainly the Parkland high schoolers showed they could learn civics, but we don’t want a school shooting to make students learn civics lessons. Debbo has refereced an idea above.

    I pointed out some years ago one idea. Students should have a statewide effort to consider and vote on ideas for bill and draft up those ideas. They could vote on their bills statewide in high schools/homeschools to select four bills. They could visit pre-session with Majority and Minority Leaders to present those bills and have them drafted up by the LRC. They could look around for prime sponsors and co-sponsors and get the bills introduced,. They could lobby their bills and provide testimony in committee. Maybe they can come up with less dumb bills than the actuall legislators, and maybe they will pass. They could even try to get one of their bills that dies in committee smoked out, and maybe they could get one hoghoused. All through this they could be organizing a grassroots campaign to get their bills passed. Nothing beats actually being a citizen to learn citizenship.

  37. Donald Pay 2019-03-04 17:33

    One thing I was really aware of when I was on the school board was how little students actually tried to influence the people who make the policy for schools. My daughter lobbied me and the students who wanted to save our strings program in Rapid City, but other than that, not one student called me to bug me about something. My daughter lobbied me on spaghetti straps. She thought it was stupid we were trying to ban them. Se got on me about the strings program and debate.

  38. bearcreekbat 2019-03-04 18:17

    As you ponder this topic I highly recommend David Newquist’s March 2, 2019, Northern Valley Beacon post, titled “You might not realize you are starving to death.” In any discussion about the SD legislature’s unfortunate approach to education, and why in the world people vote for these anti-education politicians, Newquist’s perspective is powerful food for thought and well worth the read. Cory links to it above, but to save you a search here is the link again:

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