Civics bill raises concerns of professors and students

Alabama legislature is wrestling with a bill that will require Alabama high school students to pass a 50-question civics test before graduating high school.

The Senate Education Policy Committee approved the bill Feb. 10 and the Senate will soon discuss and vote on it.

Some senators opposed the bill saying it would put new mandates on Alabama’s public schools and lower public school graduation rates, but History Department Chair Jeffrey Bibbee said he has bigger concerns regarding the bill.

“I’m an educator, so naturally I think people should be informed to a level of understanding, but we want to make sure the way we’re assessing it is really appropriate,” Bibbee said. “We know that’s one of the things that make for a successful country is an informed and engaged citizenry ensuring a productive society.”

The main concern lies in the purpose and construction of the exam, he said.

“I think for me, the first issue that comes to mind is, ‘What is the purpose of an exam like this?’” Bibbee said. “There really are two things: One is to determine whether we are effectively teaching civics in our public school systems.

“The second is a little more philosophical, which is, ‘What is the purpose of public education?’ We could argue that the purpose of public education is, in part, to create an informed citizenship.

“To live and function in our world, you have to have an engagement with society, an understanding of it to be a productive and contributing member of it.”

The bill is a step in the right direction, but is not needed right now, said junior Zebulun Worlund.

“I’m learning more about government because of the presidential race than I ever learned in my government class,” he said. “I think it’s very important to learn our history so that we can move forward. We owe it to ourselves to learn how our ancestors created and improved our nation so we can continue to improve it.”

Some legislators might not consider the practicality of the test before passing a bill, said Deshler High School history teacher Michael Statom.

“If we’re going to require people becoming citizens to know these things, people born here ought to have that knowledge,” Statom said. “How you flesh that out is where the itch is coming. Foundationally speaking, our students raised in our classrooms ought to be able to pass a test that has general knowledge about our history, the constitution and our government.”

Bibbee said the information taught in public schools, the format of the exam, the exam stipulations outlined in the bill and the method of exam delivery will all affect whether the exam presents an accurate representation of what students know about civics.

“There is a lot of research that goes into how exams are structured,” he said. “We want to make sure that the exam is appropriate and it’s appropriate to the material, that is does not possess any biases or that it doesn’t favor certain populations.”

He also said the exam could potentially punish students with disabilities and students whose first language is not English if educators can only give the test through one method. Therefore, if the exam is poorly constructed or punishes one group of students, it could impact Alabama’s high school graduation rates.

Statom said he hopes the Alabama Board of Education will give their input on this test before it passes.

While it is difficult for teachers to teach every child all he or she needs to know about the world, Bibbee said he often sees many students do not know much about civics and history.

“As a rule, sadly, we are a rather uninformed population of our history, world history, critical events and important people,” he said. “In that case, we must do better. Often, we have marginalized civics and history at the expense of language and mathematics. Reading, writing and arithmetic are the three subjects you learn. Where does history, civics and social engagement fall into that?”

Statom said he thinks the bill should not affect how Alabama teachers teach if the exam writers structure it correctly.

Americans do not know as much as they should about government, said sophomore elementary education major Kirklynn Hamby.

“Just with the recent election, I realized how little people know about the voting and election processes that our country is founded on,” she said. “I think this bill would put extra pressure on educators in Alabama if it was passed, but I think it would be a good kind of pressure. (It) would allow for a change in curriculum that would incorporate more material essential to being an effective citizen.”