Kansas lawmakers OK bill mandating civics test for students

The bill does not set a passing grade, leaving that up to teachers.

American flag

TOPEKA, Kan. – The Kansas Legislature passed a Republican-backed bill Wednesday that would require graduating high school students to have passed a civics test with questions such as, “What is one way Americans can serve their country?”

The GOP-controlled Senate voted 24-15 for the bill and sent it to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. The Republican-controlled House narrowly approved it in early March.

The measure would require public and private school students to pass a test or series of tests consisting of 60 randomly selected questions from the U.S. citizenship test. The bill does not set a passing grade, leaving that up to teachers. Students would be able to take the test multiple times until they pass.

Supporters say the test would give students basic knowledge to become engaged citizens. Nineteen states require high school students to take a civics test in order to graduate, according to the Legislature’s research staff.

“By providing this test, we are just ensuring that the principles of our government and the foundations of our Constitution are taught in our schools,” said freshman state Sen. Alicia Straub, an Ellinwood Republican.

Kelly has not said whether she will sign the bill, and fellow Democrats opposed it, questioning whether it would be effective in getting young people engaged.

The U.S. citizenship test includes questions that require applicants to name three branches of government, a document that influenced the U.S. Constitution, and who appoints federal judges.

Straub, who led the move to pass the bill in the Senate, said if students are already being taught about the U.S. Constitution and the federal government, they should be able to easily pass the test.

But the Kansas State Board of Education opposed the bill, saying it encroaches on its authority under the state constitution to set graduation requirements. The measure has also faced criticism from some education groups, including the Kansas National Education Association, which says students are already getting a civics education in government and history classes.

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat, said that she has encouraged students to work for campaigns and become poll workers. She pointed to a national program called Civics Unplugged in which high school students are trained to work on civics projects.

“I think there are programs like this that actually will help with the intent of making sure kids know about the civics process, getting them engaged and actually having an experience that will be much more influential than to take a citizenship, the naturalization exam,” Sykes said.

However, Sen. Kellie Warren, a Leawood Republican, said she disagrees with political activism substituting for the knowledge students would have to demonstrate in a civics test.

“We can disagree on politics and culture but if we don’t have a united understanding about where our country came from and its history and how it is structured. We’re going to have difficulties moving forward and getting things done,” Warren said.

During its debate Wednesday, the Senate included an amendment from Democrat Sen. David Haley, of Kansas City, Kansas, requiring the State Board of Education to develop curriculum standards for personal financial literacy classes.