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In Tennessee, Confusion Over 'Loopholes' in Civics Testing Law

Tennessee is one of more than a dozen states that has been noted for passing laws in the past two years that require students to take and pass a civics test in order to graduate high school.

All that legislative action is a direct result of the Civics Education Initiative, led by the Arizona-based Joe Foss Institute, which argues that requiring the test will help secure a place for civics and history in public schools. 

But in Tennessee there's a catch: The law does not actually require students to pass the test.

While a bill that would have required students to pass the test did make its way through the state legislature, the version that was actually passed looks different. It requires that students take a modified version of the test, but not that they pass it in order to graduate. And students who have individualized education programs that deem the test inappropriate will not have to take the test. Students will also take a slightly shorter version of the test developed by the state's education department that includes between 25 and 50 questions, not the 100 questions that were proposed in the draft bill. And all this will start in 2016, not in 2017, as the draft bill initially proposed. 

The Kingsport Times-News reported that school district leaders in the state were taken aback when they received guidance about implementing the new requirement. Many had assumed that passing the test was  a requirement—at least one school district's board had already added passing the test as a graduation requirement, thinking it was necessary to comply with the law. 

The state education department says that individual school districts can add that requirement at their own discretion.

The Times-News reports that while some of the bills' sponsors did intend for all students to have to pass the test in order to graduate, the amendment to the 2015 law was the result of an intentional compromise. Media reports, however, had focused on the earlier version of the bill. 

Lucian Spataro, who is heading the Civics Education Initiative for the Joe Foss Institute, said in an email to Education Week that his organization was disappointed by the changes to the original Tennessee bill. His argument: "From a student's perspective, having civics on a test that matters is important." 

The Knoxville News-Sentinel's editorial board agreed. The newspaper published a strongly worded piece last week arguing that requiring students to take—but not to pass—the test turns the whole process into a formality. The board writes:

"When the legislature passes a law to correct a perceived educational deficiency it should be forthright about enforcing the law."

The newspaper board suggests that schools could provide support for students who are struggling to pass the test. Tennessee's isn't the only bill that has so-called "loopholes" —in North Dakota, for instance, students can be exempted from the requirement depending on their IEP. 

The Civics Education Initiative is aiming to introduce versions of the requirement in all 50 states. No word yet on whether others will model theirs off of Tennessee's more-flexible version or stick to the requirement of passing the test.

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