Districts adapt to new civics test graduation requirement

It didn’t take much new work for Garden Valley social studies teacher Bryce Court to implement the state’s new civics test graduation requirement.

“I felt like we were already covering all the stuff that was on it,” Court said. “It wasn’t a burden on the school or anything.”

For the first time this year, state law requires high school students to take and pass a civics test based on the U.S. citizenship test.

Districts have wide latitude in how they handle the test. “The school district or governing body of the charter school may determine the method and manner in which to administer the civics test,” the law says.

And students can take the test as often as possible until they pass, and district leaders can choose whether to administer the entire 100-question citizenship test, a section of questions or a new test based on the citizenship test.

Most administrators and teachers contacted by Idaho Education News said the vast majority of their students passed the test easily, and the first time.

But there are a few glitches.

  • With graduation just weeks away, a few educators said they have a small handful of students who failed the test the first time, and have yet to retake and pass it.
  • State law allows schools to administer the test to students early, beginning in the seventh grade, but this year’s senior class didn’t have that luxury. They faced a new graduation requirement and a new high-stakes test, and a limited time to pass it.
  • Many Idaho high school seniors take American government, but not all do. Some seniors were required to pass a test based on material they had not been exposed to or studied for a year or two.

Here are four case studies from across the state.


The district randomly selects 10 questions from the citizenship test, and expects students to get at least eight of them correct.

Seniors primarily take American government, so the material was fresh as students prepared to take the test.

“It was pretty easily incorporated into our syllabus and lesson plans and hasn’t really been an issue,” Superintendent Peter McPherson said. “Everybody’s approach was pretty supportive. We knew this was a state requirement and we’re covering a lot of the material in class already, so I haven’t had any irate parents or kids or anything like that.”

Garden Valley

Many students take social studies or government courses before senior year.

That meant Court had to round up his previous classes and administer the 100-question citizenship test earlier this year. In the small, rural district, Court said that wasn’t an issue or a drain on school resources. In fact, the results boosted Court’s confidence.

“Ninety percent of them passed it the first time and we basically did it in a day,” said Court, adding that 60 percent was the threshold for passage. “I felt pretty good about it. They retained that knowledge.”

Court views the civics material as essential to preparing students to be informed citizens who participate in society and government, and he has no problem with the new graduation requirement. Court becomes uneasy watching late-night talk shows that showcase man-on-the-street interviews where adults struggle to name the current U.S. vice president or basic constitutional tenets.

“I think every American should know that the first 10 amendments are called the Bill of Rights,” Court said.

However, Court said, not every Garden Valley senior has passed the test at this late juncture of the school year.

Idaho Falls

Teachers chose to administer all 100 questions from the citizenship test, also setting 60 percent as the threshold for passage. District leaders blocked off April 11 for seniors to take the test. They knew it was a big test day anyway, since juniors were taking the state-sponsored SAT test that day.

Existing government courses already covered 95 percent of the material, said Skyline High School American government teacher Billie Wixom said. The remaining 5 percent amounted to trivia or facts that students needed to memorize, such as the longest river in the United States.

Wixom said she is very proud of her students. In all, 240 students took the test, and the average score was about 80 percent — enough to pass easily.

“Students at Skyline by and large are very civically engaged and they are aware of the policies and procedures happening in our government and they have opinions they have developed on their own,” Wixom said.

Now that the first year is almost complete, Wixom said it provided a good diagnostic tool that reveals how much students have learned in government class. But she doesn’t believe adding the new test will automatically increase student patriotism, or stir their curiosity about the Legislature. If legislators want that to happen, Wixom suggested they make an effort to visit their local schools and engage with students personally.

Eleven students did not pass the test, Wixom said, and most of them have a learning disability and an individualized education plan.

Sarah Sanders, Idaho Falls’ director of secondary education, said the district will support all of the students who did not pass by offering extra studying and more opportunities to pass the test so that none of them miss graduation.

Twin Falls

District leaders adopted an online, multiple-choice test developed by the West Ada School District and based on the citizenship test.

Secondary programs director L.T. Erickson said a lot of Twin Falls government and social studies teachers were already asking students questions from the citizenship test. The new graduation requirement caused them to be more thorough and deliberate with administering the test and tracking student scores — to ensure there are no surprises with graduation on the horizon.

Teachers were also pleasantly surprised to find out that some students took ownership of the test and discovered state-provided sample questions and a mobile app that helped them study.

“Most of the students passed it the first time they took it, and we don’t have any students in jeopardy of not graduating,” Erickson said.

Twin Falls teachers also found that seniors worried about graduation weren’t the only students taking the test.

“Here in Twin Falls we have a refugee population, so we have students who are taking the test in order to gain their citizenship as well as seniors who are taking the test in order to graduate,” district spokeswoman Eva Craner said. “It’s an interesting alignment between our refugee population and the population at large.”

Idaho Education News requested interviews with West Ada administrators or teachers who developed the citizenship test used in West Ada, Twin Falls and other districts, but district officials did not respond before deadline.


Clark Corbin

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