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Civics 101: Tenn. students must take test, but don't have to pass it

Rick Wagner • Aug 10, 2016 at 7:46 AM

KINGSPORT — Tennessee students have to take a civics exam to graduate but do not have to pass it, the Tennessee Department of Education plans to tell all school systems across the state Wednesday evening.

Confusion has reigned over whether state high school students, starting with the class of 2017, must pass a civics exam to get a diploma, giving some local and state school leaders a firsthand lesson in civics, the amending of legislation, and legislative intent versus actual language. The bottom line is that the law’s language, contrary to media accounts and possibly legislative intent, clearly states that taking the test is required but that passing is not.

“It is an expectation that all high school students participate in the civics test, but it is not a requirement to pass,” Chandler Hopper, deputy director of communications for the state DOE, said from Nashville Tuesday about the message going out Wednesday evening. Hopper said the department has fielded questions from school districts across the state about the law’s language. 

Passing the test was presented as a requirement of state law by Kingsport City Schools officials during the Aug. 2 Board of Education meeting when the BOE adopted on first reading a new policy based on the bill that became Public Chapter 499 of 2016.  A July 10 article in the Kingsport Times-News, based on the policy, indicated that passing the test was required in order to earn a high school diploma. The exam is based on the U.S. citizenship test given to those seeking to become naturalized citizens.

Most juniors and seniors at Dobyns-Bennett took the civics test Friday. The BOE voted Aug. 2 to revise graduation requirements by mandating that, among other things, students must “successfully complete a United States civics test.” Assistant Superintendent of Administration Andy True said the change was recommended by the Tennessee School Boards Association based on the law. Hopper said school systems still have the option to make passing the test a graduation requirement. Questions to legislative offices Tuesday concerning the law were directed to the DOE.

Discussion by school officials, including Superintendent Lyle Ailshie and D-B Principal Chris Hampton, during last week’s meeting indicated that passing the civics test was a graduation requirement. A summary of the board’s action from that night is as follows:  “Policy 4.605 — Graduation Requirements has been updated to include the option to offer an occupational diploma to students with disabilities, and reflects the requirement of students to take the ACT and pass a civics test.”

“We’re looking at that, including a revised 4.605 that TSBA sent out last weekend, actually,” Assistant Superintendent Andy True said Tuesday. “In it, it still includes the civics test requirement, so we’re following up on that.” Nowhere in the law does it say passing the test is required to graduate, only that it “shall be given”’ during a student’s high school career and that some students can be exempted from taking or passing it. Former TSBA President Susan Lodal, who serves on the Kingsport school board, Tuesday said to her the law doesn’t appear to require passing the test.

“Yes, we will (recommend a policy change) once everything settles a bit,” Bo Shadden, supervisor of secondary education and career technical education director for Sullivan County schools, said Tuesday. “There has been a couple of different correspondence that has created a little confusion. We have a meeting at the end of August to perfect our plan for following the law.”

The Associated Press and Chattanooga Free Press reported the legislation said passing the test was mandatory after its approval by the Tennessee House and Senate in April of 2015, and an Aug. 17, 2015, Education Week blog listed Tennessee among states requiring passage of a civics test. The Council of State Social Studies Specialists indicates the civics test issue is frequently discussed in education circles.

The legislation declares that any high school where all members of the graduating class pass the exam would get a “a United States civics all-star school (award) for that school year,” indicating students could graduate without passing the test. The designation is to occur on the DOE’s website. The Tennessee School Boards Association also indicated in 2015 in a summary that the law requires taking the test but does not mention having to pass it, the same description given by the County Technical Assistance Service at the University of Tennessee.

Originally the legislation would have required students to take the civics test as many times as necessary to pass, and multiple testing is still allowed. The original legislation also required that students get at least 60 out of 100 questions from the test correct, going into effect Jan. 1, 2016, but that was amended to passing a test of 25 to 50 questions from the test by scoring at least 70 percent correct, going into effect Jan. 1, 2017. 

The legislation also exempts students with an individualized education program or IEP if they are “determined to be an inappropriate requirement for the student,” and thus the student “shall not be required to take and pass the civics test.” The “pass” language may have been left over from the test passage being required to graduate in the original form of the bill, although the amendment was a wholesale replacement for the entire bill.

Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bill into law May 20, 2015.

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