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Overtesting concerns could derail bill's proposal for civics exam (updated)

The charter school study was released earlier this week at the American Educational Research Association's  national conference.
The charter school study was released earlier this week at the American Educational Research Association's national conference.
Alan Petersime

The question of whether Indiana high school graduates should pass a civics test is running up against an emerging concern that Hoosier children are simply taking too many state tests.

A worry that Indiana’s high school graduates don’t have enough civics knowledge has led to an unexpectedly lively debate already in the Indiana statehouse this year. Senate Education Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, last month promised a Senate bill to require Indiana high school students pass the same citizenship test that immigrants must pass for naturalization.

This morning the House Education Committee heard House Bill 1296, a similar bill with the same goal put forward by Rep. Timothy Wesco, R-Osceola.

“This bill is a signal of what’s important to us,” Wesco said.

While schools focus on giving students the skills they need to succeed in life, he said, they should also ensure graduates an understanding of government and civic responsibilities.

“What about the success of our nation?” Wesco said. “Shouldn’t that be important to us?”

Wesco said there was ample evidence that recent high school graduates were woefully uninformed about civic affairs. He pointed to disinterest in voting — Indiana just saw the lowest voter turnout of any state in last November’s election — and surveys that have shown young adults had trouble answering basic questions about government, such as naming the vice president of the United States.

The problem is so grave, Wesco said, television programs have made a regular comedic feature of asking people on the street to answer simple civics questions because their wrong answers are so laughable. The Tonight Show is one example.

But is a new test requirement the answer?

Political leaders, especially Republicans, have pushed hard over the last two decades in Indiana to create a test-based accountability system designed to ensure students learn the skills and information the state requires at each grade. While the state only requires high school students pass two tests — in Algebra and 10th grade English — to graduate, students are also tested on science and social studies at lower grades.

As the current system of tests was put in place in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Democrats most often raised the loudest concerns. They criticized a system as tilted so heavily toward tests that it diminished broader learning in favor of rote test preparation.

Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, made that case during today’s discussion. Smith, who trains teachers as a professor at Indiana University Northwest, said requiring a 100-question exam is not the best way to encourage young people to care about civic issues and government. That comes from richer class discussions about the meaning of citizenship, he said.

“A rote memorization test is not the answer,” Smith said. “It’s questions like why is it important to be active in your government?”

But over the past two years, Republicans who control the Indiana legislature with strong majorities also have begun asking if Indiana has too much testing.

“I don’t want to add another test,” said the committee’s chairman, Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Instead, Behning suggested the state might find a way to add citizenship questions to tests students already take, such as the social studies exam given at seventh grade or even to ISTEP, the state’s primary English and math test given in grades 3 to 8.

To administer the same test given nationally to those seeking U.S. citizenship would cost an estimated $2.3 million the first year and about $464,000 annually after that, according to a fiscal note that accompanies the bill. But Sally Sloan, a lobbyist for the Indiana Federation of Teachers, said she worried the bill could create more costs.

Sloan said the bill allows students to take the test as many times as they need until they pass it, but could result in charging fees after the first try. Schools could also face expenses for materials and teaching time to help those students who struggle to pass, she said.

John Barnes, who lobbies for state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, said he favored an emphasis on civics as a retired social studies teacher, but opposed the bill.

He said the Indiana State Board of Education just passed new social studies standards last March emphasizing citizenship in fifth grade, eighth grade and high school. Those standards require most of the content that would be covered on the civics test, Barnes said.

“We already have too many tests in place,” he said.

The committee held off on a vote on House Bill 1296 to allow further discussion. A vote could come Thursday or next week.

Other bills considered by the House Education Committee today were:

Student disabilities and teacher licensing, House Bill 1437. The bill, which would require teachers demonstrate knowledge of teaching strategies for helping disabled children, was similar to House Bill 1108, requiring teachers to know how to teach children with dyslexia, which the committee discussed last week.

Behning said the House Bill 1437 was probably too broad and needed work, holding off on a vote for now. Among the questions from the committee were specifically what training would be required for teachers and if they would have to demonstrate that knowledge on a test.

Adult charter high schools, House Bill 1438. Representatives from the Excel Center adult charter schools pushed for this bill, which they said would clear up confusion created last year when the legislature made changes to charter school funding.

The Excel centers serve high school dropouts ranging from teenagers to adults. The legislature last year created a separate fund to pay for dropout high schools, which previously had been part of the same funding formula as other types of schools.

Excel, along with representatives from Gov. Mike Pence’s office and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, asked for clarity on two issues.

Last year’s changes, they said, allowed only the State Charter Board to sponsor new dropout charter schools in the future. Ballard, who sponsors several such schools, asked to be permitted to continue to do so for new schools. Also charter school networks last year were permitted to manage their funds collectively, rather than keep separate funds in different accounts for each school, but that flexibility did not extend to adult high schools. House Bill 1438 would allow that.

The bill passed the committee 12-0 and will move next to the full House for a vote.

(NOTE: This story has been updated to correct estimated cost figures for the proposed civics test.)

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