- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The Nebraska State Board of Education says a bill requiring high school seniors to pass a citizenship test is the wrong way to create an informed public.

Assistant Commissioner Brian Halstead told a legislative committee Tuesday that the state should focus instead on enhancing its current programs for high school students.

The board officially took a neutral stance on a measure by Omaha Sen. Bob Krist that would require students to answer at least 70 percent of questions on the federal immigration test correctly before they can graduate. Krist said the measure is meant to ensure that high school students graduate with at least a basic knowledge of civics.

“If students do not understand how government works, as the most basic level, I might add, then how can we expect them to grow in the knowledge of importance of voting and being civically engaged and active?” Krist said.

But the immigration test is aimed at adults, not students, Halstead said, and would push students to memorize facts, not use critical thinking skills. The cost to validate and incorporate a test into a useable curriculum would be about $615,000 per year, according to legislative fiscal estimates.

Krist said some states, like North Dakota, have passed similar legislation at no cost, using free resources provided by the Joe Foss Institute, a national nonprofit that advocates for more civics education in schools.

The Nebraska Association of School Boards also voiced concerns with the bill. Spokesman John Bonaiuto said the unprecedented action of legislating curriculum at a state level discredits the duties given to the board.

The test for aspiring citizens is administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services with an agency officer asking up to 10 questions from a list of 100. Passing the test requires a score of at least 60 percent. The questions touch on American government, geography and history, including “When was the constitution written?” and “How old do citizens have to be to vote for president?”

Some committee members said they worried the test should not be how Nebraska students learn about history and government process. Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln criticized the test for failing to include women and Native Americans and Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, who founded nonprofit Nebraskans for Civic Reform, said he worried a focus on the very basic principles on the immigration test could detract from more detailed, specific civic engagement initiatives already in place at schools.

Lucian Spataro of the Joe Foss Institute assured senators the test would be an anchor to which states and schools could tailor curriculum and service learning opportunities. The important part is for a civics test to be in place, he said.

“If it’s tested, it’s taught with emphasis,” Spataro said.

The Joe Foss Institute launched the civic learning initiative last year in legislatures throughout the country, and nine states have passed similar requirements.

The measure is LB 868.

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