Just 30 percent of Flagler County students know the purpose of a constitution, understand the separation of powers, the concept of the rule of law, the reasons colonists rebelled against Britain, the Supreme Court ruling that ratified Jim Crow or what FDR meant by a New Deal.
The 30 percent passing rate is seven points lower than the Florida average of 37 percent in the state’s inaugural year of its Florida Civic Literacy Examination, intended to assess how well public school students understand “civic literacy.”
Students in a U.S. government course are required to take the new exam that covers everything from landmark Supreme Court cases to influential documents in American history to basic principles about how government functions.
In Flagler, 697 students took the test last school year. Only 208 passed. In neighboring Volusia, 37 percent passed, and in St. Johns, consistently the state’s best school district, 57 percent passed. St. Johns was tied with Santa Rosa County. Only one other county crossed the 50 percent threshold: Lafayette, with 53 percent. The school district with the highest percentage of students passing was a lab-school based out of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. At the FAU lab school, 98 percent of 46 students passed the new civics exam.The data set also shows that students in the Jefferson County School District in North Florida appear to have struggled the most on the new test. Only one student out of 31 who took the exam, passed. That would be a 3 percent passing rate. The next lowest performing district was in Glades County, in south central Florida, where 5 out of 58 students passed, or 9 percent.
Students can pass with at least 60 percent correct answers on the computer-based exam, which includes approximately 80 items.
There’s no specified grade level for the test, according to the Florida Department of Education. But students in 6th to 12th grades are eligible if they’re enrolled in a U.S. government course.
Statewide, the baseline results from the exam note that 58,745 students passed out of 157,091 students who took the exam in the 2021-22 school year, according to department data.
The civic literacy exam had two testing windows: Oct. 25 — December 17, 2021, and April 11 — May 27, 2022.
Bob Holladay, an adjunct professor of history with Tallahassee Community College who has been following the development of the civic literacy exam for years, told the Phoenix that he’s not “terribly upset” that there was not a high percent of students passing this year, because there’s another chance to pass the exam in college.
“37%…is that good? I mean, of course not. Of course it’s not good,” he told the Phoenix. “You want more, but this is the first year for this.”
He said it wouldn’t surprise him to see the percent of K-12 students passing the exam to increase over a couple years.
“Let this thing get in place and sort of get going for a couple of years and let’s see,” he added.
Since 2019, when Gov. Ron DeSantis came into office and initially declared his intention to require all high school seniors to take a civics exam, the road to a new civic literacy assessment has been a rocky one for both high school and college.
Previous attempts to get a statewide civic literacy exam were unpopular, with critics saying they appeared to dumb down civic literacy for Florida students.
Along with the new civic literacy exam, the Florida education system has been surrounded by debates over how civics and U.S. history should be taught in school, particularly when it comes to racism and slavery.
In June of 2021, state education officials voted to ban materials from the New York Times’ 1619 Project from being used in classrooms and an academic lens called critical race theory from Florida classrooms.
Critics see the new rule as an attempt to chill and suppress frank discussions about the history of the Black experience in America.
The 1619 Project recontextualizes American history by centering the narrative around Black Americans and how slavery shaped the founding of the United States.
Meanwhile, critical race theory is a decades-old academic study that started in graduate level law schools and focuses on how laws and the justice system upholds systems of oppression, particularly when it comes to Black Americans, though the use of the term has expanded into other areas.
A month later, the state Board of Education adopted new civic standards that would shape how civics and history is taught in class. The new civic standards were also heavily criticized for ‘whitewashing’ American history in regards to racism and slavery.
According to the stated goals of the Department of Education, “Students should be able to identify, explain, interpret, and apply the principles and practices of American democracy and the republican form of government.” But while most of the questions are relatively straight-forward, some of the questions the Department of Education provides in a sample can be poorly worded, tendentious, or contain errors. And the questions asked are clearly weighed toward the more idealistic version of American history rather than its reality.
Other than obvious allusions to slavery and a single indirect allusion to women’s rights, the questions steer clear of the nation’s less admirable legacies regarding labor, immigration, economic inequality and disenfranchisement. The test is silent on the genocide of Native Americans (or on Native Americans, period) and projects due process, religious liberties and natural rights as settled achievements or assumptions rather than works in progress.
One question, for example, reads: “During the 6th century B.C.E., the ancient Athenians divided the powers of their government between two assemblies and guaranteed certain political rights to all male citizens. How do these political reforms best illustrate how societies develop?”
The question implies that Athenian democracy was representative. It was not: less than a third of its population enjoyed the rights of citizenship. The question implies that Athenian democracy resembled the American bi-cameral system. It did not. Only one assembly ruled during the 6th century B.C. A separate body was added at the end of the century not to check or balance the assembly’s power, as in the American system, but to guide it. The correct answer to the question, according to the test, is that the Athenian system illustrated how societies develop “by limiting government authority.” But that’s an anachronism, imposing modern ideology on a time when “limiting government” was not only not a part of the civic conversation: it was the reverse. There was no higher purpose than politics, government and government service in Athens.
Another question quotes the preamble to the Constitution and asks “Which philosophical movement best reflects the ideals in the passage.” The correct answer, according to the state, is “Enlightenment,” to the exclusion of “Reformation” or “Progressivism,” yet most reforms and the progressivism of the first part of the 20th century reflected the ideals of “a more perfect union” no less. The question, in other words, interprets the preamble as stuck in time rather than applicable to subsequent history, and would unfairly penalize students who see it as modern scholarship sees it.
Yet another question asks which Supreme Court case “resulted in a decision that undermined civil rights and liberties in prioritization of national security?” The desired answer is Korematsu v. United States, the 1944 decision ratifying the internment in concentration camps of over 100,000 American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II.
As historians have shown since, and many opponents of internment knew then, including three dissenters in the Supreme Court decision, it wasn’t national security that was being prioritized, but a national policy of racism no different than other court decisions such as Plessy v. Ferguson and the Dred Scott case, also figuring in questions on the same test. (It wasn’t until 2018 that the Supreme Court repudiated Korematsu, but in the same decision that ratified the Trump administration’s ban on largely Muslim citizens’ ability to travel to the United States.)
Some questions are nonsensical, more fit for Jeopardy than a civics test (a student’s critical thinking or insights are not revealed by knowing “Which article of the U.S. Constitution”–the first, second, third or fourth–“grants the power to coin money, make treaties, and levy import duties”). A question that ties the Mayflower Compact to “equal protection under the law” is a fanciful stretch that turns an instrument of control in a rigidly governed colony, where dissent was not tolerated, into a beacon of equality.
–FlaglerLive and Florida Phoenix