TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s oft heralded civics education model is under fire from critics who argue a new test approved by the state allows college students to pass with a watered-down understanding of the subject.
The Board of Education unanimously paved the way on Wednesday for students to meet their civic literacy course requirements by scoring at least 60 percent on an exam consisting of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Naturalization test plus some additional questions.
But opponents of the rule change, including the D.C.-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni and Robert Holladay, an adjunct history professor at Tallahassee Community College, say the hybrid test is not a reasonable substitute.
The chief complaint: a trove of test answers are easily accessible online.
“That’s not teaching a student how to think,” Thomas Crapps, the Tallahassee attorney representing Holladay, told the board Wednesday.
The first tier of Florida’s civic education system, recognized as one of the top in the U.S., requires students to pass a civics course and state exam in middle school. That test, which 71 percent of students passed in 2018, counts as 30 percent of their civics class grade. But students must also clear a separate civics literacy exam in high school or college before they are allowed to walk away with an undergraduate degree from state schools, a policy often praised by state lawmakers and groups such as ACTA.
Since last school year, Florida students have been required prove their civic literacy by taking a three-credit- hour course or by passing either the AP History, AP Government, or College Level Preparatory Exam.
Yet civics advocates argue the new exam doesn’t reflect the spirit of what lawmakers intended with their three-year-old civics education law.
The rule approved by the Board of Education “has seriously eroded the legislature’s civic education requirement,” ACTA President Michael Poliakoff said in a statement.
“Relying on what is essentially a middle school-level assessment bypasses the legislature’s clear intention, which was to strengthen civic education in the state of Florida,” he added.
The Department of Education pushed to add the expanded naturalization test — known as the Florida Civic Literacy Test — because it’s a cheaper option or potentially free for students, Florida College System Chancellor Kathy Hebda told the board Wednesday.
The same test was already approved for the State University System, she noted, defending the exam after Crapps addressed the board.
“While the content of the Florida Civic Literacy Test is based on naturalization test, it’s not the same as the naturalization test,” Hebda said.
In a 12-page letter to the Department of Education, Crapps said the rule was an “invalid exercise of delegate legislative authority.”
“A multiple-choice test involving at best selecting, and at worst guessing, the answers to questions that are available online, does not “assess” a student’s understanding of the basic principles of American democracy,” Crapps wrote in the May 1 letter.
ACTA is pushing the state to reconsider using the literacy test to gauge students, which would require a stark turnaround for the board.