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Why civics literacy matters
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Should Tennessee students have to pass a civics test in order to graduate from high school?
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, thinks so. He recently introduced House Bill 10, to be considered during the next Tennessee General Assembly, which convenes this Tuesday.
I agree with Rep. McCormick’s civics bill, in principle, but differ with him on some of the details. For starters, if civics literacy is important enough to be a requirement for graduation from high school, why set the bar for passing the civics test so low? McCormick’s bill sets “60 percent or higher” as a passing grade for the test. That’s right, 60 percent! By any objective measure, that is ridiculous.
 To add insult to injury, McCormick’s bill would allow high school students to take the test as many times “as necessary” to pass the 100-question quiz. So where’s the motivation for students to excel? Except for self-motivation, it's nowhere.
Civics is defined as “the study of the rights and duties of citizens.” For Americans, It partakes of economics, geography, history, and our system of self-government. “We the people” should not be just some slogan etched in parchment. It should be words to live by. It should inform our social conduct, including not only our rights as American citizens, but our duties and responsibilities as well.
Useful, productive citizenship requires civic literacy. Thomas Jefferson was right. A society that expects to remain ignorant and free expects what never was and never will be. Ignorance and apathy are more likely to be our undoing, as citizens and as a nation, than other threats foreign and domestic. And that’s precisely why civics literacy matters.
By the way, this civics test resembles the one administered to immigrants seeking to become U.S. citizens. Guess how many tries they get? The answer is two. Knowing this is a built-in motivator for those who ardently aspire to the privilege of American citizenship. By inspiration and perspiration, they do their homework and typically excel on the test. 
If civics literacy really matters, as I believe it does, so should the test to measure it. Calling a failing grade a passing one, and giving students too many opportunities to pass it, sends the wrong message to them.
If Rep. McCormick is really serious about improving civics literacy among Tennessee students, he needs to re-think his civics test proposal and come up with a more comprehensive bill that is fair to students and teachers alike.
Otherwise, the civics test contemplated by Rep. McCormick and bill co-sponsor Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris will be just another test requirement, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Retired Army Col. Thomas B. Vaughn can be reached at