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:
- 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?
- 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.