BISMARCK – A bill that would require North Dakota high school students to pass a civics test based on the U.S. citizenship exam before graduating cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday with flying colors – specifically red, white and blue.

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The House Education Committee heard passionate and patriotic testimony from a military veteran and others in favor of House Bill 1087.

David Johnson, department adjutant for the North Dakota American Legion, called the need for civics education “paramount.”

“It’s important because this is what we put our lives on the line for,” he said.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, offered an amended version that requires students to score at least 60 percent on the 100-question test in 2016-17, the first year it would be administered, but then 70 percent in subsequent years. New Americans must correctly answer six of 10 questions randomly selected from the test to pass.

The amended bill also clarifies that home-schooled students are exempt from the civics test unless they’re seeking a diploma from their home school district.

Special education students also would be exempt, though Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, predicted a majority of them will still complete the assessment.

Heckaman said the idea has generated enthusiasm in her school districts – relating how one social studies teacher described students running to the computer to look up the test – and sparked conversation in coffee shops.

“I think that the enthusiasm is out there,” she said.

The committee voted 11-0 to send the amended bill to the House floor with a do-pass recommendation. No one testified against the bill.

The bipartisan bill is part of an effort by the national Civics Education Initiative, an affiliate of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Joe Foss Institute. Foss, who died in 2003, was a former South Dakota governor and Marine Corps pilot who founded the nonprofit institute with his wife in 2001 to teach students the value of American freedoms and public service.

The initiative formally launched Sept. 17 with legislative efforts announced in seven states, including South Dakota. The institute’s goal is to have it approved by all 50 states by Sept. 17, 2017, the 230th anniversary of the U.S. constitution.

First lady Betsy Dalrymple, a co-chair of the North Dakota effort, said that while the national success rate among new Americans who took the U.S. citizenship test in the past five years was 91 percent, it’s far lower among native-born students, citing pass results of 3 to 4 percent in separate surveys of students in Oklahoma and Arizona in 2009 and 2010.

“We in North Dakota must do better,” she said.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, a former history teacher, said his only complaint about the bill was that the standards were too low.  

“When I was teaching, 60 percent was an F,” he said. “We expect more than that of our kids in North Dakota.”

State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said students can take the test as often as necessary to pass. The bill gives districts flexibility in how to administer the test, which could be taken in one sitting or over multiple grade levels and across several subjects, she said.

North Dakota’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, said the nation’s cherished freedoms come with rights and responsibilities, including knowing how the country was born and evolved.

He said the proposed test is no more than what’s required of people who ask to become U.S. citizens.

“It’s only logical to require that of all young citizens. We need to be the example,” he said.