A Big Picture Citizenship Test

A big-picture citizenship test
The exam will focus not on facts but on a deeper knowledge of ideals.
By Nicole Gaouette, L.A. Times Staff Writer
December 1, 2006

WASHINGTON Passing the test to become an American citizen soon will require more than knowing that there are 50 states or nine Supreme Court justices. Instead of memorizing minutiae about U.S. government and history, those seeking to put their hands on their hearts and recite the Pledge of Allegiance will be assessed on their grasp of the nation's ideals.

Unveiling the first major change to the exam in 20 years, the federal government said Thursday that applicants for citizenship would be asked to explain such phrases as “we the people” and “inalienable rights.” Instead of knowing how many branches make up the U.S. government (answer: three), they will have to explain why there is more than one.

The shift in emphasis comes after years of complaints that the exam tested trivia rather than prompting prospective citizens to understand the nation's shared identity. There also were charges that it was administered unfairly, with applicants in some cities receiving harder tests than those in others.

“The goal is to make it more meaningful,” said Emilio Gonzalez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “When you raise your hand and swear allegiance to the United States, you ought to know what you're swearing allegiance to.”

The federal agency has a list of 144 draft questions, which it plans to try out in 10 cities none in California. It will then winnow the list to 100 approved questions. Applicants will be given 10 of the questions. To pass, they must correctly answer six, as well as meet other requirements for citizenship.

Citizenship test: An article in Friday's Section A about revisions to the U.S. citizenship test said legal permanent residents serving in the U.S. military could apply for citizenship after three years. They can apply immediately upon joining the service; their applications are expedited so that if they pass the test and meet the other criteria, they can become citizens in 60 to 90 days. Also, the article said UC Santa Barbara professor Lorraine McDonnell spoke about the test at an immigration seminar in Los Angeles. She made her comments to a reporter after the forum, which took place in Irvine.


After a year of bitter debate about overhauling the nation's immigration laws, the revamped test is likely to churn up controversy. Whereas some conservative organizations called the new questions an improvement, immigrant-rights groups have flagged some that they say are tougher and may raise hurdles to citizenship.

“Some of the questions are just off the wall,” said Fred Tsao, policy director at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “Other questions I found unusual. And the range of information that's being asked for is much broader.”

One question asks applicants to name the federal minimum wage (answer: $5.15).

“Someone who came in from India as a software engineer isn't necessarily going to know what the minimum wage is,” Tsao said.

Sense of community

And though the new questions were designed to help create a sense of civic community, a member of the panel that advised the government on the test said Thursday that she thought it failed to achieve that goal.

The questions focus mostly on the federal government, political science professor Lorraine McDonnell of UC Santa Barbara told an immigration seminar in Los Angeles sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences. “There's nothing really in there about how to participate as a citizen in your local community,” she said.

Green card holders also known as legal permanent residents can take the citizenship test after living five years in the United States, or three if they are married to an American or serve in the military. Over a two- to four-month period, the agency hopes to attract 5,000 of these prospective citizens to volunteer for the pilot program.

The new testing will start in January in Albany, N.Y.; Boston; Charleston, S.C.; Denver; El Paso; Kansas City, Mo.; San Antonio; Miami; Tucson; and Yakima, Wash.

There are three parts to the test: civics, reading and writing English, and speaking English. The new questions will be in the civics section. The reading and writing section will ask applicants to define civics-based vocabulary words and to read and write sentences on civics and history topics. The words and sentences were decided upon with the aid of testing experts and teachers of English as a second language.

To allow time for study materials to be put together, the final version of the test will not be introduced until 2008. The test-taking fee will be higher than the current $400 but has not been determined. Agency officials said the pilot program was meant to refine an overhaul that has been six years in the making and ultimately will cost about $6.5 million.

“If the majority of people are failing, that probably suggests that some questions are not fair and too difficult,” said Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the agency's Office of Citizenship. “We will take out questions that are just too difficult.”

Creating standards

One major change will be the agency's effort to create national standards. For example, those administering the test currently can ask questions in any order or at any level of difficulty they choose.

Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan said the agency would assign each question a difficulty value to ensure all applicants faced similar challenges. “Everyone will get an even balance,” she said.

Rhatigan said the agency chose cities for the pilot study as a representative sample of busy and quiet offices and all regions. But of the top 10 states for citizenship applications, only four Texas, New York, Massachusetts and Florida are included in the study. The pilot study's largest city, Miami, processed 30,413 naturalization applications in 2003-04; by comparison, Los Angeles processed 164,016.

“It seems to me these cities are not where most of the immigrants are,” said Traci Hong of the Asian American Justice Center in Washington. “If that's the case, how will we know how well those questions work?”

Hong also questioned the range of diversity at the test sites, noting that with the exception of Boston, there were no large Asian immigrant centers in the study. “I'm very concerned for my own community's perspective,” she said.

Immigrant-rights advocates also questioned the difficulty of new sections on geography and the conceptual content changes that were heralded by some conservatives.

“The point of the test is to determine whether you're sufficiently Americanized to be given U.S. citizenship, whether you've been paying attention to life in America,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates immigration controls.

John Fonte, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, said the questions were irrelevant. He said what was important was the citizenship ceremony; he compared it to such rites of passage as a first Communion or a bar mitzvah.

“It's not about learning answers; it's a ceremonial process,” he said. “The point is to learn something about the U.S., but to a greater extent, to make an effort. And people feel very excited. They take the oath of allegiance; many are crying it's a great emotional moment. It builds patriotism.”


Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe in Los Angeles contributed to this report.



Deeper understanding?

The new citizenship test will have more questions that assess an understanding of U.S. ideals and fewer that can be answered by memorizing facts. Some examples of draft questions and acceptable answers to be tried out in pilot programs in 10 cities, as well as examples from the current test:

Draft questions

Q: Why do we have three branches of government?

A: So no branch is too powerful.

Q: Name two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy.

A: They can vote, call senators or representatives, run for public office, write a letter to a newspaper, join a political party, or other possible answers.

Q: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream for America. What was his dream?

A: Equality for all Americans, civil rights for all, or other possible answers.

Q: Name one important idea found in the Declaration of Independence.

A: All people are created equal, the power of government comes from the people, the people can change their government if it hurts their natural rights, or other possible answers.

Current questions:

Q: What are the colors of our flag?

A: Red, white and blue

Q: Who is the president of the United States today?

A: George W. Bush

Q: Who was Martin Luther King Jr.?

A: A civil rights leader.

Q: What is the name of the ship that brought the pilgrims to America?

A: The Mayflower.

Q: Where is the White House located?

A: Washington, D.C.