State education officials want to define what students should learn to be engaged citizens who vote, volunteer and understand the art of civil discourse when they graduate from high school.

Defining “civic readiness” became part of the Nebraska Board of Education’s strategic plan, was among the topics of a social studies education summit in February and comes on the heels of legislation that would have required civics testing in schools.

The state Board of Education is expected to vote on the definition, which would help educators know what students should be learning and be better able to measure whether they’re learning it.

“What it does is clarify what it means to be civic-ready,” said Cory Epler, the state education department’s chief academic officer.

The state’s social studies standards include civics education, but the definition being considered by the board is broader and could encompass more than social studies classes, Epler said.

It would promote experiences students can have in high school to inspire civic-mindedness, rather than teaching specific standards.

“Getting a 70 percent on a test as a senior in high school doesn’t necessarily mean as a 40-year-old you’ll be an engaged citizen,” he said.

The proposed definition includes having a fundamental understanding of the structure of government and the history that informs policies, as well as having the skills necessary to be involved citizens with a  “personal commitment to ideals important in a democracy.”

The definition stresses the need to be advocates but also to respect and understand differing opinions and the value of civil discourse.

In today’s polarized political climate, the need to learn how to have a discussion where everyone’s views are respected is particularly important, Epler said.

“The timing is right,” he said.

The definition is similar — if more detailed — to language in a bill supported by the state Board of Education during the last Legislative session that would have updated the Americanism statutes written in 1949.

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Opponents of that bill argued the changes would weaken the standards and promote socialism.

Omaha Sen. Bob Krist’s original bill would have required high school students pass the civics portion of the U.S. citizenship test to graduate, but he amended it to instead allow schools latitude to decide when and how to test students’ social studies knowledge.

Epler said more states are moving to create standards that promote civic-readiness in addition to college and career-readiness, and Nebraska has added that to its goals.

The definition will allow teachers to make sure their classes teach the skills defined by the state, and will help the state improve teacher training, he said.

At Lincoln Public Schools, civics-related activities include participation in a citywide “student vote” during presidential elections, required community service hours as part of a government and politics class, and opportunities in student government.

A small work group drafted the proposed language, but state education officials reached out not only to educators, but to groups on both sides of the political spectrum, as well as state officials, including the secretary of state, Epler said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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