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RI EDUCATION

Civics proficiency now a requirement for all Rhode Island public school graduates

The bipartisan law does not require that students take a separate civics course or exam, but individual school districts will determine how their students can “demonstrate proficiency”

Roger Williams Middle School in Providence.
Roger Williams Middle School in Providence.Ryan T. Conaty/The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — Civics proficiency will now be a requirement for all Rhode Island public high school students.

The new law, which was introduced earlier this year by state Senator Hanna M. Gallo, a Cranston Democrat, with mirroring legislation sponsored by state Representative Brian C. Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican, ensures that all students understand the “principles of democracy, how their government works, and the rights and duties of actively engaged citizenship.”

Governor Dan McKee signed the legislation into law Friday.

“Solid civics education in public schools is absolutely critical to having an informed public,” said Gallo on Monday. She is the vice chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee and serves on the Joint Commission on Civics Education. “Students are the next generation of voters. They need and deserve to graduate with a healthy knowledge of how they can create the changes they want to see in their community, their state and their country.”

In 2005, Gallo also sponsored a law that led to the development of a statewide civics curriculum and standards for grades K through 12. Sixteen years later, this new law will require that all high school students attending a Rhode Island public high school demonstrate proficiency in Civics, starting with the graduating class of 2023.

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However, this new law does not necessarily require that students take a separate civics course or civics exam. Instead, individual school districts will determine how their students can “demonstrate proficiency” because according to lawmakers, many “aspects of civics” are already incorporated into other subjects’ curricula.

The new law also requires that students complete at least one student-led civics project in either middle or high school. The project could be individual, group, or class-wide and is designed to show the student’s ability to reason, make logical arguments using evidence, and understand the connections between federal, state, and local policies.

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The decline of American’s civics knowledge has been a debate for the last several years, and according to a 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, one in every four Americans are able to name the three branches of government.

A paper published in 2018 by the Brown Center on Education at the Brookings Institute found that while reading and math test scores have improved in recent years, there has not been an increase in eighth grade civics knowledge, and only 11 states have written standards for service learning, which the report said is required for an “effective civic education experience.” Rhode Island was not one of them.

“A thorough grounding in civics should be a cornerstone of every education consisting of two parts,” said Newberry in a statement Monday. “First it should contain a deep understanding of the foundation of our nation’s government systems and structures, with neither their imperfections whitewashed nor their subtlety, genius and keen reflections of the limitations and foibles of human nature downplayed or diminished. Second, it should contain practical instruction in how government at all levels works, the interplay between those levels, the limitations on power and constructive ways in which to effect change in public policy.”

The passing of this legislation came after 14 current and former students of Rhode Island public schools sued former governor and now U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and the state in 2018, claiming that their school failed to provide them an adequate civics education.

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Their case, Cook v. Raimondo, was dismissed by Rhode Island District Court Judge William Smith in October 2020, but Smith said in his decision, “This case does not represent a wild-eyed effort to expand the reach of substantive due process, but rather a cry for help from a generation of young people who are destined to inherit a country which we — the generation currently in charge — are not stewarding well.”

Smith went on to say that Rhode Island should “pay attention to their plea,” and that the students, and their families, “should be commended for bringing this case.”

“It highlights a deep flaw in our national education priorities and policies. The Court cannot provide the remedy Plaintiffs seek, but in denying that relief, the Court adds its voice to Plaintiffs’ in calling attention to their plea. Hopefully, others who have the power to address this need will respond appropriately,” wrote Smith.

This new civics proficiency law also comes after the General Assembly passed a bill introduced by Rep. Anastasia P. Williams, a Providence Democrat, that would require public school students to be taught Black history.

The bill was designed to ensure that students are educated in African heritage and history so they understand the role Rhode Island played in the American slave trade, and the contributions African Americans made to society.

“As we have witnessed over the past year, the connections that hold our society together are fragile, but these connections can become strong through respect, compassion, and most importantly, truth,” Williams said at the time.

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Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.