Wyoming High Schoolers May Be Required To Pass Citizenship Test

Bill clears committee over objections of educators

  • Published In: Politics
  • Last Updated: Jan 24, 2023

Sen. Dan Laursen (R-Powell) is sponsoring a bill that would require high school students to pass the civics test administered to new U.S. citizens. Senate File 114 ran into some opposition but passed the Senate Education Committee on a 4-1 vote. (Photo by Michael Smith)

By CJ Baker

Special to the Wyoming Truth

If they want to receive a diploma, Wyoming’s high school graduates may soon need to pass a civics test.

A bill making its way through the Wyoming Legislature would require all students to correctly answer at least 60% of the civics-related questions posed to new U.S. citizens.

A bill being considered by the Wyoming Senate would call on the state’s schools and colleges to continue offering instruction on the U.S. Constitution, adding a note that the instruction should include “the Bill of Rights [and] amendments.” The sponsor said he feels the amendments are “critical.” (Courtesy image from the National Archives)

Despite objections from educators that the measure is unnecessary, the Senate Education Committee endorsed Senate File 114 on a 4-1 vote Friday, sending it to the full chamber for debate.

“If you’re going to walk out of a high school with a diploma, all this bill is saying is you gotta pass the civics tests that immigrants pass,” said Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester), adding, “It’s not an indictment upon our schools as much as it is just setting the bare minimums.”

There appeared to be agreement that Wyoming students would be able to easily pass the test, but critics questioned its educational value.

Richard Lennox, a retired teacher from Cheyenne, said the quiz administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is “at a very low level.”

“If there is a predilection to say we want to beef up our civics standards and send a message to our community that they’re important, this bill doesn’t do that,” Lennox said.

Ken Decaria of the Wyoming School Board Association echoed those concerns, contrasting the simplicity of the federal test questions with the state’s more rigorous social studies standards.

For example, “I would want students to know why we have three branches of government and what the purpose[s] of those three branches of government are, not just that there are three branches of government,” Decaria said.

Tate Mullen of the Wyoming Education Association said it would be better to address civics education when the state Department of Education begins revising its social studies standards later this year.

“We don’t feel that the legislature should circumvent a process that has worked incredibly well for our students, districts and educators across the state,” Mullen said.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) questioned the need to give Wyoming’s high school students an additional civics test, saying students are tested enough already. (Courtesy photo from the Wyoming Legislature)

He added that the current amount of testing is contributing to the challenge of recruiting and retaining teachers.

“… I don’t hear a lot of parents, teachers or education community folks saying, ‘The problem is we don’t have enough testing,’” said Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie), the lone no vote in committee. “… In fact, I tend to hear, ‘Could you cut down the testing?’”

Rothfuss questioned why the legislature needs to mandate this particular test.

“Why not legislate this?” responded Sen. Dan Laursen (R-Powell), the bill’s sponsor. “Because this is what I would like to have done — and I think I hear that from many of my citizens in my district, that this is very, very important.”

“We need to make sure that our younger population knows the Constitution, how the country was formed and all of that,” Laursen added. “I think we’re getting away from that.”

Under current law, the state’s public schools and colleges must instruct students on the “essentials” of the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions and students must pass an exam covering the principles of the two documents.

SF 114 would add a requirement that students pass the “the civics test required to become a United States citizen” and specifically require instruction on the Bill of the Rights and the other amendments to the U.S. constitution; Laursen said he wants to emphasize those “critical” portions of the document.

As initially drafted, the legislation required public schools and colleges to provide additional instruction on the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions. Instead of the current requirement to provide three years of instruction between elementary and middle schools, one year in high school and one year in college, the bill called for teaching them every year. However, Laursen asked to drop that portion of the bill on Friday, after the Department of Education provided information on how current state standards align with the citizenship test.

“… We’re reaching the [test] questions already,” he said.

During a Wednesday hearing, Laursen said he hadn’t delved into the standards before bringing the bill, and “I guess I probably should have.”

While national surveys suggest that many Americans struggle with questions from the citizenship test, Laursen said he didn’t believe it would be difficult for students, noting 96% of immigrants pass the test. Laursen reported surpassing the 60% threshold himself.

“Did you get into the 80s?” Rothfuss pressed, drawing some laughter in the meeting room.

Before Laursen could answer, Committee Chairman Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper), interjected, quipping that, “You’re invading the student’s privacy.”

SF 114 — which would take effect in the 2023-2024 school year — now heads to the Senate floor for its first reading.

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