From the Tampa Bay Times, by Cara Fitzpatrick
A third of Americans can't name any of the three branches of government. Fewer than half understand what separation of powers is, and twice as many can name a judge on American Idol than the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Survey after survey has shown that Americans lack basic knowledge about how their government works. That's something Florida lawmakers hope to change.
The state is introducing a new end-of-course exam in civics for middle school students, the first high-stakes test required for middle school promotion. Students now have to take a civics class in middle school. By the 2014-15 school year, they'll have to pass the end-of-course exam to attend high school.
High-stakes tests aren't new to Florida. Third-graders must pass the reading Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to move to the fourth grade, while high school students must pass the FCAT to graduate. The civics exam affects this year's incoming sixth-graders.
Leslie Christenson, a Hillsborough County mother of a rising sixth-grader, said she thinks the state should teach civics. But she thinks a high-stakes exam is overkill.
"I think it's good for them to know it, but not to be held back because of it," she said.
State education officials plan to field test the new civics exam this year. In the 2013-14 school year, 30 percent of a student's civics grade will depend on the test score.
The state also has developed other end-of-course exams, which affect high school graduation. This year's incoming ninth-graders will have to pass tests in algebra, biology and geometry to graduate. Students also will take an end-of-course exam in U.S. history, but it won't affect graduation.
The new civics exam represents a big change for Florida, which only recently began to require students to take a separate civics class. For years, the subject often was included in a government class, usually taken at the end of high school.
Of Florida school districts surveyed between 2003 and 2005, fewer than 10 percent offered a stand-alone civics course, according to the Florida Law Related Education Association.
Lawmakers changed that in 2010, requiring students to take the end-of-course exam and one semester of civics in middle school. It passed without any opposition in either the state House or Senate.
Christenson said she fears that students won't be interested in civics and it might make it tough for them to pass the end-of-course exam.
"They're not going to want to study it," she said.
Some teachers in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties already are using a virtual program, iCivics, to try to engage students.
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor created the iCivics program after leaving the bench to address the lack of government knowledge among Americans. It offers virtual civics lessons and interactive gaming modules, alongside lectures and homework assignments.
Eric Leopold, a civics teacher at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School in Largo, said that the favorite games of his students are "Counties Work," "Do I Have a Right," and "Immigration Nation." He credits the games with improving students' knowledge of political issues.
Angela Zollo, social studies department chair at Palm Harbor Middle School, said that the iCivics programs "reinforce the civics standards that we are required to teach."
"It is a great visual and hands-on activity for students," she said.
Nicholas Fox, 13, used iCivics when he was a student in Leopold's class. He said he enjoyed the games and "learning about the law."
"Coming into it from sixth grade, I did know about the very basics — like that there are three branches of government — but I didn't know a lot," he said. "After I took the class, I learned."
Correspondent Alexander Heffner contributed to this report. Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (727)-893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.