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CIVICS EDUCATION | Globe Editorial

These teens know their stuff

June 19, 2011

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AMERICAN STUDENTS are woefully ignorant of civics and US history, according to the results of a nationwide test released this week. That didn’t come as news to a group of Massachusetts students on a months-long campaign to make civics a graduation requirement.

Teens Leading the Way, a statewide, youth-run advocacy group, got plenty of ammunition from the recent test of 12,400 high school seniors. Only 2 percent could identify racial segregation in schools as the social problem addressed in the landmark 1954 US Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education. Overall, only 12 percent of 12th-graders scored at or above proficiency on the US history exam.

Teens often question the relevance of what they learn in school. But there is a real hunger among young people for greater civic and political knowledge, according to Teens Leading the Way. The young people from Lowell, Haverhill, and Greater Boston suspect that their classmates’ lack of civic knowledge leads to low voting rates and contributes to the dropout problem. Too often, they say, government classes are the exclusive domain of Advanced Placement students.

Massachusetts, they rightfully insist, can do better. Thirty-nine states have civics or government requirements for high schools.

“Why should we be one of the 11?’’ asked Andres Vargas, a graduating senior at Haverhill High School.

The group testified last week on Beacon Hill in favor of a bill requiring state education officials to develop a high school civics course that covers the composition of the branches of local, state, and federal government, the history of social movements, and current events. Implementation calls for a pilot program in 2012 and a course requirement the following year.

The Legislature should approve the pilot program and work with state education officials to determine how best to implement a civics curriculum without distracting from the statewide push toward proficiency in English and math. The young people say civics could easily replace one of the electives now offered in senior year.

It’s not every day that students ask for additional course work. Let’s hope that state education officials are paying attention.