This is what happens when state lawmakers are too eager to hop onto bandwagons.
The Utah Legislature passed a law allowing parents to opt their children out of any test mandated by the state or federal governments. Then lawmakers passed a law requiring students to pass a civics test before being allowed to graduation from high school.
Faced with this contradiction, state school board members now say you may opt your child out of the civics test, as well, but it means you will be opting him or her out of graduating from high school. Given the ample research showing how the lack of a high school diploma likely dooms a person to a life of failure, that’s an ill-advised option to take.
So, what in the name of the Romper Room Class of ’64 (of which I am a proud member) is going on here?
The simple answer is that lawmakers are following two national trends that, at the moment, at least, are in conflict.
Perhaps what it really means is they are following the wishes of the people they represent, who are the real people in conflict.
On the one hand is a growing popular movement against standardized tests, and particularly against the Common Core. Some parents worry the tests are not directly related to school curriculum and that children face too much anxiety on test day. Others are concerned that states use the tests to measure teacher performance.
This movement has taken hold in other states to a far greater degree than in Utah. According to various news sources, about 200,000 students in New York state, out of a total of 1.1 million, opted out of math and English tests this year. This was remarkable considering New York doesn’t have a law allowing them to opt out. Many parents just kept their children home on test day.
The New York Times reported that most of these parents qualify as wealthy or middle class. In some Long Island districts, 60 percent were absent on test day.
The state of Washington saw about half its 11th-graders opt out of state tests last April, according to USA Today.
But the other trend is a much quieter one. It might not even count as a trend except in the most conservative states. Utah is one of only nine states to now require the civics test, but it is seen as a way to make up for deficiencies in how children are being educated.
State lawmakers were persuaded by the Joe Fosse Institute, which is pushing for state-mandated tests in all 50 states. This is separate from a push for better civics education by actor Richard Dreyfuss, who told The Hill he wants changes to start in kindergarten, leading eventually to young adults with a better ability to think and reason.
So, if I’m drawing the right conclusion here, it is that Utah lawmakers want to require tests they think are important, but allow people to ignore the rest. The idea of testing, itself, may be evil or good. It all depends.
That’s a confusing way to run public schools, and it’s a difficult way to establish any benchmarks for measuring progress.
The backdrop to all this is a dismal record of performance nationwide by schoolchildren. The National Assessment of Educational Progress found that eighth-graders in both public and private schools know little about U.S. history, geography or civics. Only 18 percent scored at or above proficient in history in 2014. In geography, the figure was 27 percent, and in civics, 23 percent.
Perhaps a better understanding of civics would help future generations find a solution to all of this. A recent report in The Atlantic quoted filmmaker Tiffany Shlain as saying, “You have to know about how the government works in order to make change ”
But we’re not going to solve the problem by chasing trends. Letting parents ignore tests accomplishes little.
However, you don’t accomplish much, either, by merely requiring a civics test without some broader effort to make sure students are equipped to pass it.
Real answers require broader, and much more difficult, solutions.