Legislator wants test on founding documents

JUNEAU -- Other than reading, writing and math, Alaska high school students do not face tests to qualify for graduation.

But a Wasilla lawmaker wants to mandate a new graduation exam -- on the nation's founding documents and the principles of self-governance.

Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, also wants the state to adopt curriculum and testing standards for all grade levels to ensure high school students understand "the history of American constitutionalism" as explained in the nation's founding documents, including the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

But is school education lacking in those subjects? Under questioning from fellow lawmakers on Wednesday, Keller admitted that he did not know what the state's curriculum standards say about these topics.

State officials on Wednesday said their curriculum standards advise teaching about "the constitutional foundations of the American political system and the democratic ideals of this nation," including the founding documents.

"School districts determine at the local level their own curricula," said Eric Fry, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

To graduate, Alaska high school students must take three years of social studies, with a half-year spent on Alaska history.

Keller isn't the only House lawmaker trying to mandate new testing about U.S. governance. Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, has filed House Bill 112, which would require prospective graduates to pass the civics portion of the U.S. immigration test. (Sample question: The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words? Answer: We the People.) Her bill has not had a hearing yet.

Improving civics education in Alaska has been a long-sought goal for some Alaska educators. In 2008, a state-funded task force came up with a list of recommendations on how to do that, including the funding of a statewide civics curriculum coordinator.

The task force's findings were not adopted, according to Mary Bristol, who chaired the Citizen's Advisory Task Force on Civics Education Policy.

"We are still lobbying to achieve some of that," said Bristol, an education professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Bristol believes that the state's curriculum standards for civics education need to be reviewed and probably updated. "They were written a long time ago," she said.

But she and some legislators are hesitant about putting new testing and curriculum mandates on schools.

New tests for thousands of high school students would be expensive, they said.

Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, said Keller's bill, as it stands now, is an unfunded mandate.

Keller said during a House Education Committee hearing on his bill Wednesday that teaching constitutionalism is so critical that existing school budget dollars should be shifted to support it.

Fry, with the Education Department, said staffers are still analyzing Keller's bill before calculation how much it will cost the state. The department may testify on the bill Friday, he said.

Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at or call 257-4317.