A disturbing trend in Concord has been the Legislature’s increasingly intrusive efforts to dictate to public school educators what they should teach and how. In the case of this year’s bill to mandate a specific civics test to high school students, or last year’s requirement that Holocaust and genocide studies be taught, the end result is not especially controversial. After all, it’s hard to imagine any serious effort to ready students for today’s world that doesn’t educate them on civics or the Holocaust. What’s troubling, though, is that legislators feel a need to go beyond setting broad curriculum parameters for local school boards and teachers to operate within and instead stick their noses into the classroom.
The recently mandated civics test is a case in point. A state law, RSA 189:11, already establishes a framework for instruction on U.S. and New Hampshire history and government and sets forth various areas to be covered for students to graduate from high school. It’s a sensible, foundational outline of topics that can serve school districts and teachers well in developing specific curriculum. In the realm of civics education, these topics include constitutional principles underlying democratic government, the role of the separate state and federal branches of government, how governments make and enforce laws, and the like.
Now, with the recent passage of House Bill 320, the Legislature has gone further and mandated that, beginning with the 2023-24 school year, high school students take the national civics exam administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to residents applying for naturalization. Further, to graduate, they must achieve a grade of 70 percent or better (citizenship hopefuls only need 60 percent and are asked only 20 of the questions). By itself, that strikes us as not a troublesome requirement, as the test has 128 broad and more basic questions on how the U.S. government works and basic aspects of U.S. history. But passing it requires more rote memorization — for example, knowing there are 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution — than substantive comprehension.
If there is a concern about the requirement itself — and it’s one that the N.H. School Boards Association expressed in opposing HB 320 — it’s that mandating the test may lead schools to teach to the test and lessen their substantive focus on the function and history of the state and federal governments and the rights and responsibilities of citizens. We don’t share that concern, as school districts and their teachers are already sufficiently committed to providing their students a more thorough civics education than required to pass the national civics exam and don’t see them lowering their standards.
That said, however, the civics exam mandate is one more instance of unwarranted interference by the Legislature in local control of education. Another recent, far more outrageous example of this unwillingness to trust local school districts and teachers is the Legislature’s divisive concepts bill that Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law in June. That measure puts teachers and others at risk of legal or disciplinary action if, for example, a parent decides the way his or her child is being taught about racism in America is “discrimination.”
Having appropriately set broad parameters for educating the state’s students, why a Legislature committed to principles of small government finds it increasingly important to micromanage local school boards and teachers is beyond comprehension. While the national civics exam may have use as a rudimentary assessment of students’ knowledge of civics, we suggest an additional use for it that would be equally, if not more beneficial, to the states’ residents: Before they’re sworn in, let’s require all statewide office holders to pass the same test. It might not keep them from meddling in others’ areas of expertise, but at least it would demonstrate they have a rudimentary knowledge of their own.