LEGISLATIVE WATCH WYOMING: High School Students Will Not Have to Pass Citizenship Test

Senate nixes proposed civics test by a single vote

  • Published In: Politics
  • Last Updated: Feb 01, 2023

By CJ Baker

Special to the Wyoming Truth


Wary of requiring Wyoming students to take another test, the state Senate narrowly nixed a bill that would have required all high school graduates to pass the same civics exam given to new U.S. citizens.

During the Jan. 26 floor session, Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne) said she understood the intent behind the Senate File 114.

“Certainly when I’ve gone door-to-door and you explain to people you’re running for the legislature, even in Cheyenne, they have no clue what that means,” Ellis said.

Senator Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne and Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, speak during the morning session on January 18, 2023 in the Senate Chamber. Photo by Michael Smith

Still, she was among the 16 senators who voted to kill the bill, edging out the 15 who supported it. Ellis said the legislature shouldn’t address a concern about social studies education by creating a new graduation requirement and “teaching to the test.”

SF 114 would have required high schoolers to correctly answer at least six out of 10 questions (60%) about American government, American history and integrated civics before receiving their diploma. The 10 questions are randomly drawn from a pool of 100, composed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Bill sponsor Sen. Dan Laursen (R-Powell) posed one of the hardest queries to his colleagues during the Jan. 24 floor session, asking if they could name an author of the Federalist Papers. Laursen reported that the series of essays — which advocated for the ratification of the Constitution — were written by James Madison and John Jay; he didn’t mention the third author, Alexander Hamilton, or the men’s collective pseudonym of “Publius,” which is another acceptable response to the question.

Laursen has proposed the mandatory civics test multiple times, saying he did so after many people asked him if Wyoming’s high school graduates actually know “the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the amendments to the United States Constitution.”

During the Senate’s final debate, bill supporter Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) said he doesn’t know whether the state’s students are learning the basic information covered on the citizenship test.

One of the trickier questions on the civics test administered to new U.S. citizens asks for the name of one of the authors of the Federalist Papers. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison and their shared pseudonym of Publius are all acceptable answers. (Courtesy image)

“We test them for math, we test them for science, we test them for language arts. All we’re saying is we just need some standards to measure efficacy. How effective is the instruction we’re getting?” Hicks said, adding that, “I don’t know that this is a giant burden so much as it’s just we think it’s an important component of an education.” 

However, Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) contended that curriculum and passing grades should be left up to teachers, the Wyoming Department of Education and local school boards. She also said Wyoming teachers are already teaching the information included on the test.

“This is really [a] political action for popularity, about how we care about our Constitution — ‘By God, those Wyoming students, they’re going to know a citizenship test,’” Nethercott said. She charged that the bill would set a precedent for “making political statements using our school system as the tool.”

She asked if lawmakers would next require all kindergartners to sing their ABCs with 80% accuracy. 

While the Wyoming Education Association and Wyoming School Board Association opposed the bill, they said the citizenship test would not be a challenge for most students. Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper) predicted only 5-15% of students would fail — and that they would study the material again, get to a basic level of proficiency and ultimately pass. 

“It’s not a big test, but it will require some students that really haven’t learned much of anything in this area … to learn something,” Scott said of the 10-question quiz. “And I think that’s worthwhile.” 

Other senators noted the state has been trying to reduce the amount of testing and balked at “one more mandate from Cheyenne.”

“Some of you really probably should go into some of our public schools and see how kids have changed,” said Sen. Wendy Schuler (R-Evanston), a retired teacher. “All we’re really asking here is more tests, and I think that’s what’s really ruining education right now.” 

Sen. Ed Cooper (R-Ten Sleep) said he’d spoken to his school-aged grandsons about the proposal and came away feeling that “probably they have a better understanding, better knowledge of the Constitution than a lot of people in this room.”

Senator Ed Cooper during the opening session of the 67th Legislature at the Wyoming State Capitol on January 10, 2023 in Cheyenne. Photo by Michael Smith

“I’m going to trust my grandkids’ intuition on this and say they’ve got this figured out, and they’re tired of that concept of teaching to the test,” Cooper said before his no vote.

After SF 114 failed by a 15-16 margin, Ellis brought the bill up for reconsideration and it failed again, 14-17. That procedure effectively killed any chance of the measure being revived later in the session.

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