Lawmakers want S.C. high school students to take citizenship test

Lawmakers in the House and Senate are pushing to have high school students take a civics test to boost understanding of the U.S., its history and its government.

A national poll once found that more Americans could name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government.

It wasn’t even particularly close: Only 42 percent could list the executive, legislative and judicial branches, while 77 percent knew Moe, Larry and Curly.

Wise guys, eh?

A decade later, the situation is worse. Fewer people can recite the branches of government, and Thomas Jipping of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies suggests we are becoming a nation of stooges.

Even if millennials don’t know them, and wouldn’t appreciate the humor.

Two-thirds of South Carolina residents couldn’t pass the U.S. citizenship test, 40 percent of college graduates don’t know Congress has the power to declare war and 10 percent of them think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court.

Of course, given the president’s obsession with celebrity, that’s not the most horrible guess.

All this adds up to one thing: the Legislature picked a bad time to suggest cutting history and social studies testing.

Last week, local historian Robert Rosen castigated that legislative proposal, which is just one plank in an education reform platform unveiled by the General Assembly in January.

Lawmakers swore this was the year they would improve public schools. If more people knew history, they’d realize that it was merely a rerun.

As the legislative session has dragged on, most of the planks in that ambitious reform package have been discarded. About the only thing left on the table is raises for teachers.

Which is good, but not nearly enough.

Some proposals have been justifiably jettisoned — did we really need another bureaucracy to oversee education? But most ideas have been dropped because lawmakers can’t find consensus.

And that includes social studies testing, which passed the House and stalled in the Senate — a reflection of the community divide.

“There are no easy answers for civics testing,” says veteran Charleston County School Board member Cindy Bohn Coats. “The public, teachers, everyone agrees there is too much testing. Education reform isn’t just education funding reform — it should be about valuing education for the opportunities it provides us to change the course of our lives and our careers.”

Coats is absolutely right.

The debate over standardized testing is nothing new, and the argument against it is pretty simple: Classes spend too much time studying to the test, when students would learn more if teachers just ... taught.

That is undoubtedly true, in part because education officials live and die by test scores.

The truth is, South Carolina requires more social studies and civics classes than many states. Which isn’t saying much. The hilariously bad results of all these national surveys reveal that most people know very little about their country.

A recent study from Annenberg Public Policy Center found that a majority of U.S. citizens were oblivious to our government’s structure and their constitutional rights. More people (33 percent) couldn’t name a single branch of the government than those who could name all three (32 percent).

More than a quarter of people think the president can ignore a Supreme Court decision if he or she thinks it’s wrong. Wonder where they got that idea?

Probably cable news, because it turns out people are much better informed about the intricacies of impeachment and pardons these days.

Beyond reading and writing, which is hard enough to teach, few things are more important to a good education than understanding your country and everything that has come before.

If people knew their history better, they might see the repeating patterns in public discourse. Study nullification, the Civil War and the civil rights movement, and you’ll see echoes of old times repeating themselves today.

Not in a good way.

As usual, the answer to the testing question may lie in compromise: Beef up the civics courses, but drop the standardized testing — which is mostly about measuring the job performance of educators.

If more people had learned history in school, they might realize this: The Legislature always says it will improve education, and rarely does anything more than throw money at the problem.

Which isn’t the answer, but is exactly where this session of the General Assembly is headed.

Any stooge with a modicum of historical knowledge could have seen that one coming like a poke in the eyes.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

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