PIERRE | High school students may soon need to take a civics test to graduate in South Dakota, according to a bill passed by the state House on Thursday.
Passed by a 38-31 vote, House Bill 1066 would require that students in public schools and state-accredited private schools pass a 10-question civics test in order to graduate high school. The 10 questions would be sourced from the U.S. citizenship exam and picked annually by the state secretary of education.
Homeschool and some special-needs students would not be required to take the test, nor would students of non-state-accredited private schools. Students would need to pass the test with a score of at least 70 percent, and could take the test as many times as necessary in order to pass.
Representatives on Thursday debated whether the mandate would overstep “local control” and impede on local school boards’ authority to establish curricula.
Rep. John Lake, R-Gettysburg, said the bill was “micromanaging” curriculum decisions that are “best left to the people that are closest to individuals.” House Minority Leader Rep. Jamie Smith, D-Sioux Falls, called the bill “demoralizing” to teachers who should have the freedom to make educational decisions for their students.
“Teachers are professionals,” Smith said. “School boards are elected to make decisions. Let them do their jobs.”
Proponents of the bill, though, argued that civics education and testing is vital enough that it should be mandated at the broader, statewide level. Rep. Manny Steele, R-Sioux Falls, said throughout South Dakota, “we should have a standard for our pupils.”
According to an October 2018 poll conducted by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, 19 percent of participants under the age of 45 passed a 10-question civics test, also sourced from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services test.
Rep. Fred Deutsch, R-Florence, said that this data shows there is a “problem” with young people’s civics knowledge.
“We measure math. We measure English. We measure science,” Deutsch said. “Can’t we just do a little bit to measure civics, as well?”
Rep. Ryan Cwach, D-Yankton, contended that young people’s disinterest in politics is part of a “much broader cultural issue that a 10-question test won’t address,” instead blaming the dynamic on the “cynicism that pervades our political culture right now.”
“If we really want students to start caring about civics, a test isn’t going to do that,” Cwach said. “We need to engage them. We as a body and we as individual citizens need to work together to end that cynicism that’s destroying our political culture. That’s the issue.”
The bill comes from Republican Gov. Kristi Noem’s office, following her January State of the State address when she said, “Civics need to reemerge.” She was met with a standing ovation from the Legislature when she proposed the testing requirement for graduation.
“It is only fair that, before our young people graduate from high school and take on their responsibilities as citizens, they also display this basic knowledge of our nation’s institutions and its history,” Noem said in her Jan. 8 address. “If our next generation is to be successful, they must know the story of our past generations.
The bill now moves onto the Senate before reaching Noem’s desk for her signature.