Trustees | General Education

Bill would require civics test for high school graduates

JAMESTOWN SUN   |  December 2, 2014 by Mike Nowatzki

How many justices are on the U.S. Supreme Court? When is the last day to send in federal income tax forms? Why did the Colonists fight the British?

North Dakota students may have to answer those and other civics questions correctly to graduate from high school if the Legislature approves a bipartisan bill announced Monday.

The state is the latest to jump aboard a nationwide effort aimed at requiring high school students to take the same civics test that new Americans must pass to qualify for citizenship.

Under the bill, students would have to answer at least 60 percent of the test’s 100 questions correctly in order to graduate, starting in the 2016-17 school year. New Americans must correctly answer six of 10 questions randomly selected from the exam.

“This is an important initiative in my mind because this bill takes us back to the principles we have as a nation,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said.

Baesler and first lady Betsy Dalrymple announced the legislation at a Capitol press conference with the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, chairman of the House Education Committee.

Nathe pointed to a 2012 survey of 300 college graduates by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in which only 20 percent knew that the “Father of the Constitution” was James Madison and only 38 percent could give the correct length of terms for U.S. House and Senate members.

“But 96 percent of them could identify Lady Gaga,” he said.

The bill is part of an effort by the national Civics Education Initiative, an affiliate of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Joe Foss Institute.

Foss, who died in 2003, was a former South Dakota governor and Marine Corps pilot who received the Congressional Medal of Honor. He and his wife founded the nonprofit institute in 2001 to teach students the value of American freedoms and public service.

Sam Stone, national campaign manager for the Civics Education Initiative, said it’s the first concrete step to bringing back civics education in schools.

The initiative formally launched Sept. 17 with legislative efforts announced in seven states: Arizona, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah. New Hampshire, New Mexico and Georgia also are considering it, Stone said.

In North Dakota, both public and private school students would have to take the test. Baesler said they could take it multiple times until they pass.

“The purpose of this is not to be punitive … but really allow them to understand what our country is based on,” she said.

The bill would let school districts decide how the test is administered, which could involve spreading out the test questions over several years, Baesler said.

“We’re offering as much flexibility as necessary,” she said.

The initiative carries no cost to the state, she said.

Baesler said civics teachers have responded “very positively” to the idea. Students are being taught the information now, but the test “should be a launch point for our civics teachers to make these fundamental elements relative to their lives today,” she said.

More than 90 percent of new Americans taking the civics test have passed on their first try in recent years, but the success rate is “a lot lower” for native-born high school students, Dalrymple said, citing a 2009 survey in another state that found only 23 percent of students knew George Washington was the nation’s first president.

“This must change, and it must change now,” she said.

Nathe said he’d like every member of the Legislature to take the test, too.

“Boy, would that be interesting to see what the results would be,” he said.

The bill’s others sponsors are Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Rep. Bob Hunskor, D-Newburg, and Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford.

Dalrymple said the goal nationally is to have all 50 states adopt the civics test requirement by Sept. 17, 2017, the 230th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.


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