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.

COLUMBIA — High school students in South Carolina might soon have to demonstrate the same basic knowledge of American history, laws and government institutions as immigrants trying to become citizens.

But, unlike immigrants, or students in Arizona and North Dakota, South Carolina highs-choolers who aren’t proficient in civics won’t be penalized under a proposal being considered by the Legislature.

The plan has substantial backing in South Carolina. It’s being pushed by three former governors — David Beasley, Jim Hodges and Dick Riley — and it’s named for a fourth, James Edwards, who died last year. It lists 18 sponsors in the Senate out of 48 members, and Majority Leader Bruce Bannister is one of 15 sponsors in the House.

Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, who’s leading the effort in the Senate, said a strong understanding of civics and history is necessary to protect the country.

“We are heading down the road of losing that virtue and our liberties,” Campsen said.

Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, the bill’s lead sponsor, said it’s only fair that all U.S. citizens learn about the country, its government and history — not just those who come here as immigrants.

“We ought to expect the same of our citizens,” Smith said.

South Carolina students wouldn’t have to pass the test to graduate high school like they would in Arizona and North Dakota. About a dozen other states also are considering mandating similar civics proficiency tests.

The test would be taken in 11th-grade government class, and students who got more than 60 of the test’s 100 questions right would get a certificate. Schools would have to report overall results to the state.

Immigrants have to pass a shorter test with questions pulled from the pool of 100 about the U.S. and its history before they can become citizens, and more than 90 percent pass, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Lawmakers in South Carolina and supporters of the idea nationwide have pointed to research suggesting that only 4 percent of high school students could pass the immigration test, but that survey has been widely disputed. The conservative Goldwater Institute, which commissioned it, pulled the results in 2009.

Still, other studies have found low rates of civics understanding. In 2010, for example, fewer than a quarter of 12th-grade students were rated “proficient” in civics in the most recent federal education assessment. About two-thirds had a “basic” knowledge.