Texas tinkers with the wrong way to make history

Marcy Emerick, an educator at Akins High School in Austin, teaches U.S. History to a class of juniors in October, 2018. Photo by Rachel Zein for The Texas Tribune

A new bill overwhelmingly passed by the Texas House could dismantle history education as we know it.

If approved by the Senate and signed by the governor, the bill would eliminate the existing graduation requirement that 11th grade students pass a rigorous U.S. history exam. In its place, students would have to achieve 70% or above on a civics test composed of low-level questions pulled from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Naturalization Test.

To be sure, a robust civics education is essential to a functioning democracy, and the data suggest that ours is far from robust. In February, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation conducted a 50-state poll and found that only one state had a majority of adults who could pass the USCIS Naturalization Test. In Texas, just 22 percent of adults scored a 70 or above.

But, in hoping to address Texans’ civic knowledge gap, the proposed legislation would only widen it.

Texas’ current 11th grade U.S. history class is demanding. It calls on our students to analyze the effects of landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions, evaluate changes resulting from the civil rights movement and compare various New Deal policies. The list goes on. At the end of the year, students sit for a rigorous STAAR test composed of questions based on political cartoons, speeches, and charts.

In my time as an 8th grade U.S. history teacher in Dallas ISD, I saw the benefits of a similarly rigorous history curriculum and end-of-course exam. Students left the course with both a deep understanding of U.S. history, government and society, and valuable critical-thinking skills.

The Naturalization Test would do the opposite. It is composed of 100 rudimentary questions about U.S. government and history and lacks all the complexity found in the current curriculum. Where the current curriculum calls for analysis and evaluation, the Naturalization Test requires rote memorization of basic facts, most of which students learn in their middle school courses.

To replace the current curriculum in favor of this low-grade test would do a great disservice to civics education in Texas and thus to the civic knowledge of its population. As I know firsthand, the end-of-course exam informs the method of teaching. Educators would naturally respond to the change by teaching directly to the test, attempting to drill these basic facts into their students’ heads. And, given the simplicity of the test, schools would divest resources from the course and deprioritize the very subject that the legislation seeks to promote.

If the Legislature is actually serious about its commitment to civics education, it should enhance the current curriculum or consider making the Naturalization Test merely a supplemental exam — one metric of civics knowledge. The Texas Council for the Social Studies and the Texas Social Studies Supervisors Association have provided alternative solutions to increase the priority of civic education. None of those solutions involves replacing the current test. 

In explaining its disappointing poll results on civic knowledge, The Woodrow Wilson Foundation pointed its finger at poor methods of history education: “students are asked to memorize dates, events, and leaders, which the poll results show are not retained in adulthood.”

In passing this legislation, Texas would be asking its students to follow that path.

Lawmakers’ desire to enhance civic education in Texas is a laudable goal, but the Naturalization Test is not the solution. The state Senate must heed to the calls of the states’ social studies educators and save our history education while it can.

Adam Garnick

Student, Penn Law