UPDATED with text of DOE message; Tennessee civics test legislation was changed because legislative intent changed

Rick Wagner • Aug 11, 2016 at 7:31 AM

KINGSPORT — The original legislative intent and the final language of a Tennessee law on high schoolers taking a civics test in the Volunteer State were at odds, but the language change was part of a compromise, not a mistake.

As reported Wednesday, the Tennessee Department of Education has determined the law, Public Chapter 499 of 2016, requires that high school students take the civics test, which is based on the one given to people seeking to become naturalized citizens, but does not require them to pass it.

Liz Alvey, senior policy adviser to state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said Wednesday that she had been confident the legislative intent was to make passing the civics test a requirement for graduation. However, a person familiar with the legislative process, but not formally authorized to speak, said leaving out the requirement to pass the test was one of the intents of the amendment, not a mistake or inadvertent. Videos from 2015 with lawmakers discussing the legislation, House Bill 10 and Senate Bill 10, are available online on the General Assembly website, legislature.state.tn.us. 

Alvey, an attorney, said Wednesday afternoon from Nashville that she was contacting the main House sponsor so he could contact the DOE about the matter, but he could not be reached for comment. The message from the DOE went out to directors and superintendents of 146 Tennessee school systems early Thursday morning, not Wednesday night as originally indicated. Chandler Hopper, deputy director of communications for the state DOE, said it also clarified that the law affects the class of 2017 forward.

“Beginning in January 2017, all high schools must administer a United States civics test. The test should be prepared by each district and should be comprised of between 25 and 50 questions. Questions must come from U.S. citizenship test (available here) administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,” said the text of message sent about 6:55 a.m. Central Daylight Time or about 7:55 a.m. local time. “Students must correctly answer at least 70 percent of the questions on the test to earn a passing grade. A student may participate in the test as many times as necessary to earn a passing grade.”

All public high school students, including the class of 2017, are expected to participate in the civics test; however, a passing grade is not a requirement for graduation. The department will recognize as "United States Civics All Star Schools," schools in which all seniors who receive a regular diploma also earn a passing grade on the United States civics test.

Alvey said Norris took the amendment language directly from the office of state Rep. and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who originated the bill. The legislation was reported by the media at the time as requiring passing the test, but differing interpretations have since emerged, including the DOE’s Wednesday evening guidance. The original bill language included the following: “No student may receive a regular high school diploma unless the student has passed the test.”

However, nowhere in the final bill language, which the law matches word for word, does it say a student must pass the test to graduate. It does, however, say at a school where “all seniors receiving a regular diploma, except for those exempted from taking the test under subsection (c), make a passing grade on the United States civics test required under subsection (a) shall be recognized on the department’s website as a United State civics all-star school for that school year.”

That would imply, or at least beg the question, that students might not pass the test, but still receive a diploma. The exception given is students with an individualized education program (IEP) when it “is determined to be an inappropriate requirement for the student (the student) shall not be required to take and pass the civics test.” Various 2015 media accounts indicated the legislation still required passing the exam.

Alvey said the issue some systems have brought up is interpreting which high school class would first have to abide by the law. It was passed in April of 2015, but has an effective date of Jan. 1, 2017. Kingsport City Schools interpeted that to mean the class of 2017 would be the first impacted, but Alvey said other systems have questioned that and indicated it should apply first to the class of 2018, seniors in the 2017-18 school year. “The Class of 2017 will be the first class expected to participate in the civics test,” Hopper said.

The amendment also shifted the test from 100 questions to between 25 and 50, and it moved the passing percentage from 60 percent to 70 percent. That means passing the test, whether it’s required or not, would entail students taking a 25-question test to get 18 questions correct. Dobyns-Bennett gave a 25-question test to most juniors and seniors Friday following school board approval Monday on first reading of a policy change that would mandate the test for graduation. Hopper said school systems could require passing the test for graduation if they choose to do so.

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