Is the FL State Board of Education dumbing down college civics requirements?

Volunteers unfurl a giant banner printed with the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

From the principles of democracy to the history of our nation and the building blocks of government, civic literacy is important – so important that it’s a graduation requirement for first-time college students entering Florida’s public community colleges.

Those kids have to “demonstrate competency” in the subject to graduate, but controversy is brewing on what that means and whether Florida is moving to dumb down the civics requirement.

The State Board of Education is poised to vote Wednesday on a rule to allow a new civic literacy test to satisfy the requirement, at no or low cost to community college students. That’s similar to the standards at four-year public universities.

Kids wouldn’t need to take civics courses and they could pass the new 100-item multiple choice test with a score of 60, akin to a D.

Robert Holladay, an adjunct professor of history at Tallahassee Community College, is a vocal critic of what’s happening.

He has described the new test as “at best suitable for middle or high school students,” according to state records.

And, “It appears the objective of the State Board of Education in adopting this rule is not to lower regulatory costs, but instead is to provide the option of an easy memorization test in lieu of a true civic literacy assessment or coursework required in the existing rule.”

The controversy comes at a time when students across the country have been struggling to master cornerstone principles in civics in the United States. Just recently, only 24 percent of 8th graders scored at or above proficient in civics on a federal exam called NAEP, or the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In Florida, the new test that could be used to meet college civics requirements is called the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Naturalization Test – Civics (U.S. history and government) with supplemental questions — but it’s better known as the Florida Civic Literacy Test.

The test was developed by the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government in Orlando, based on the Naturalization Test from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, with additional questions.

“We basically took the naturalization test and modified it to make it multiple choice and added some questions related to Supreme Court cases,” said Stephen Masyada, interim executive director for the Institute.

“It measures the foundations that all citizens need to be engaged and literate citizens,” he said. “These are things that folks should know by the time they finish college.”

If the state board approves the rule, students can start taking the new test beginning in June.

Currently, testing options for students to meet the civics literacy requirement are rigorous Advanced Placement exams – a score of 4 on the AP U.S. History exam and a score of 3 on the AP Government and Politics: United States exam. The other test is the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) exam in American Government. The passing score on that exam is a score of 50.

According to the New York-based College Board, the AP and CLEP tests cost roughly $90 per exam.

Holladay , the TCC adjunct professor of history at Tallahassee Community College, said in an interview with the Phoenix that the AP exams that high-schoolers take require more college-level critical thinking than questions offered on the multiple-choice Florida Civic Literacy Test.

He would prefer that the civic literacy test ask students “to write, or to think.”

“Something like, ‘In a paragraph, explain the separation of powers,’” Holladay said. “Something that not only shows that they know trivial facts, but also demonstrate that they understand it and can put it to practice.”

Students have also been able to take a different route at their colleges to meet the civic literacy requirement by completing American government and history courses. Those courses would involve understanding the U.S. Constitution and founding documents as well as landmark Supreme Court cases, among other topics.

In documents from the state, Holladay said, “This will result in virtually no students taking courses in American History or American Government…”

“If you can meet this requirement by taking a middle-school level test, then you don’t have to hire teachers to teach history or government,” Holladay said in an email to the Phoenix.

“The students, as in this case, get cheated out of proper education.”

A March 4 memo from the Department of Education planned to implement a piloting of the new test with Florida high school students. Maysada said that the pilot was suspended until next year due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

However, Florida four-year universities, where some students still need to satisfy the civics literacy requirement, began using the test this year, despite the coronavirus and stay-at-home recommendations.

So far, there are no state-provided practice materials or resources for taking the exam. If students are interested in preparing for the Florida Civic Literacy Test, they can refer to any Florida college that offers their own resources. These materials vary.

For example, the University of Central Florida offers a civic literacy guide to dozens of links to prepare college students, ranging from a full online textbook to a civics guide for middle-schoolers.

However, University of Florida and Florida State University offer links to landmark Supreme Court cases and resources from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on how to pass the naturalization test.

The Phoenix asked the Florida Department of Education to answer questions about the civics rule, but the agency did not reply by the Phoenix’s deadline.