Area school districts implementing citizenship test requirements

Several area districts are incorporating a new high school graduation requirement into middle school classes.

Under the terms of House Bill 2030, before they can graduate from high school, Oklahoma students are now required to take and pass a 100-item test over history and government that uses questions from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services’ website.

Passing is defined as correctly answering at least 60 questions, and students must be allowed to take the test as many times as necessary in order to reach that score.

School districts did not receive any additional state funding this year to cover any costs associated with implementation, such as translation services for English language learners or printing paper copies of the exam, a spokesman for the Oklahoma State Department of Education said.

The law took effect on Nov. 1, 2021, making this the first full school year that the additional requirements are in place. The first senior class subject to the testing requirement will not graduate until 2025.

People are also reading…

However, students are allowed to fulfill the requirements as early as eighth grade. Oklahoma’s eighth grade social studies standards include several concepts covered in the questions published by Citizenship and Immigration Services, including the separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government and the development of the Declaration of Independence.

“We are trying to offer the test at least once a semester,” Owasso social studies teacher Quinn Thompson said. “We’re trying to get these students through it before the rigors of high school really set in.”

Owasso initially offered the exam to its freshmen in 2021-22. However, this year, the test is also being offered to the district’s eighth-graders. Once students pass the exam, their transcripts are updated accordingly. Students who do not pass will have access to quizzes and other remedial materials as long as necessary, Thompson said.

“We’re able to track who’s passed it and quickly get it marked on their transcripts,” he said, noting that his district started last year by testing freshmen and is including eighth-graders this year.

High pass rates

Other than setting aside time for reviewing the material and the actual exam, Bixby Superintendent Rob Miller said the additional requirements have not changed how the district covers social studies. Bixby is among the districts that have opted to make the exam available starting in the eighth grade.

“There’s an insinuation that school districts would not be covering this if not for the mandate of requiring children to pass a test,” Miller said. “That’s just a false premise to begin with.

“We’ve taught citizenship and US history forever — since I’ve been in school. It hasn’t changed now.

“We’re not teaching radical US history or CRT (critical race theory) or some of these things that are being talked about out there. We’re teaching American history and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. They’re required for us to teach.”

Jenks Public Schools has also opted to start offering the test to eighth-graders. Thomas Blakely, a social studies teaching and learning specialist for Jenks Middle School, said more than 95% of the district’s eighth-graders passed the exam in spring 2022.

Many of the students who still needed to fulfill the requirement, he said, were either absent on test day, required multiple testing accommodations or were newcomers to the United States at the time.

However, even with that high pass rate and teachers carving out up to two weeks of instructional time to help students review the material, he mentioned that some teachers have already heard concerns from current eighth graders’ parents about students being anxious about the exam.

“We have a lot of content to cover with the state standards, so we always regret having to lose some instructional time,” he said. “However, we have excellent teachers at Jenks who do a great job delivering the content and making sure the students know what they need to do.”

‘Civics knowledge assessment’

Tulsa Public Schools opted to use the 2021-22 school year to develop implementation plans and offered the exam for the first time this semester.

This year, TPS is administering the exam to freshmen and sophomores. In subsequent years, Tulsa Public Schools Social Studies Content Manager Emily Harris said the district plans to begin testing students in their freshman year.

Although the exam is referred to in state law as the US Naturalization Test and it incorporates materials used to prepare for the test given to people seeking American citizenship, the two are not identical, prompting TPS to refer to the exam as a “civics knowledge assessment” ”rather than a citizenship test.

According to Citizenship and Immigration Services, the civics portion of the naturalization test is administered orally, and the exam’s length is either 10 or 20 questions, depending on when a citizenship candidate is applied to take the test. A passing score for citizenship purposes is six right answers on the 10-question edition or 12 right answers on the 20-question version.

“The actual (citizenship) test is very different from what our students are doing,” Harris said. “A citizenship candidate might only be asked 10 questions rather than 100. We are required to give all 100 questions, so we are doing it in multiple choice forms.”

Although TPS students had been passing at an “overwhelming” rate on their first attempt, Harris expressed frustration that the exam took away instructional time and relied solely on rote memorization rather than requiring students to demonstrate skills that they had developed in social studies classes, such as as analyzing a primary source document.

“The test is also redundant because almost all the questions are already embedded into state standards going back to first grade, so we are seeing the majority of students pass on their first attempt.

“However, students who have accommodations, modifications or an Individualized Education Plan are typically the students who need at least one crack even with accommodations met. They’re the ones most disadvantaged by losing instructional time.”

At Booker T. Washington High School, social studies teacher Brandon Thomas incorporated the exam into some of his classes. He said that while some of the material covered by the mandatory questions was already in the curriculum for his government course, the graduation requirement meant setting aside class time for review sessions and to proctor the exam itself.

“I’m not sure if this (the graduation requirement) is the right way to do it, but it does have a lot of potential to do some good for our students,” he said.

Photojournalism by Mike SImons, Stephen Pingry, Tom Gilbert, Daniel Shular and Ian Maule from 2022.