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Ron DeSantis wants Florida high schoolers to take exam similar to citizenship test

During a news conference in Naples, DeSantis launched into a long-winded discussion of American history, which he said young people need to know better.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis raises his hands after being asked about his relationship with two Ukrainian businessmen during an announcement at a Palm Harbor Walmart Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. DeSantis refused to answer questions about the two men. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday that all high school seniors should be required to take a civics exam similar to a test that immigrants must pass to become naturalized citizens.

“Survey after survey, it paints the same dismal picture,” he said during a Naples news conference. “Younger Americans, people who are 25 and under, they lack basic knowledge of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, broader civics ... We have to do better."

Yet Florida is already considered a leading state in civics education. Under the current system, to get out of middle school, a student must pass a civics course, typically in seventh grade. The course comes with a state exam, which counts for 30 percent of the grade. In 2018, Department of Education data shows that 71 percent of students passed that test.

Additionally, all high school students must pass a course on U.S. history, which also includes an exam that is 30 percent of their grade. All Florida college and university students must also pass a civic literacy test.

But DeSantis said Florida needs to do more. He said he is directing Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who joined him in Naples, to institute the testing requirement, adding that they are working on several ideas to “make civics important again.”

A history buff, DeSantis spoke for more than 20 minutes about American social studies, delving into the separation of powers, Abraham Lincoln, women’s suffrage and the Cold War.

He indicated the civics test scores will be used as a measuring tool, to “at least let us know how far behind we are.” A spokeswoman for DeSantis, Helen Aguirre Ferré, later clarified that passing the test will not be required for students to graduate from high school.

Nationally, civic literacy is not high. Just 23 percent of eighth-graders scored at “proficient” in civics on the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card.”

Beefing up Florida’s civics was a rallying cry for DeSantis during his 2018 campaign for governor. He often said the Constitution needed to be put “back into the classroom,” despite the existing lessons on the Constitution found in middle school curriculums.

He said Tuesday that teaching students about American history and government is paramount to maintaining a society with shared values.

Stephen Masyada, the interim executive director of the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida, said that he’s supportive of an expansion of civics education, but is anxious to see the details of the proposed test and how DeSantis’ plan would be implemented.

The Lou Frey Institute has been heavily involved in past civics education initiatives, helping the state develop K-12 assessments and curriculum.

“From our perspective, the middle school civics exam is more rigorous and a better exam than the naturalization test that is being proposed here,” Masyada said. “The naturalization test, it’s just a straight memorization test and all the answers already found online.”

The Institute has long advocated for classroom courses that goes beyond memorization to change students’ behavior and make them more civically involved.

“All the knowledge in the world is not enough to make you a good citizen if you don’t know what do with that knowledge,” Masyada added.

Meanwhile, the statewide teachers’ union sounded unimpressed.

After DeSantis’ news conference, the Florida Education Association tweeted that “the best way to increase student knowledge of civics is not with additional testing but by freeing up their teachers from the constraints of ... Florida’s accountability system.”

Times staff writer Jeff Solochek contributed to this report.

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