Revised Test Will Dig Deeper Into Citizenship

Revised test will dig deeper into citizenship
Could you pass the test? Would you be able to pass the redesigned citizenship test?

By Cindy Gonzalez
The Omaha World Herald (NE), July 4, 2008

Her legs went numb. Panicked, Teresa Ramirez could barely breathe let alone answer the civics quiz that held the key to U.S. citizenship.

Such anxiety came despite extensive studying — up to four hours a day for three straight months.

In the end, Ramirez passed and today celebrates her first Independence Day as a full-fledged citizen. Still, daughter Anaji Reynoso cites her mom's case when explaining concerns about even higher anxiety over a redesigned naturalization test that takes effect Oct. 1.

Reynoso and co-workers at an Omaha advocacy agency that offers study classes for wannabe citizens are encouraging eligible immigrants to apply now for citizenship so they will qualify to take the current civics and history exam. (Applicants generally must have five years as a legal permanent resident.)

The new version goes beyond asking for historical facts and demands a deeper understanding of what it means to be an American.

'Open-ended questions can be confusing,' said Reynoso, a social worker at the International Center of the Heartland. 'A lot of people freeze. They'll be like, 'What are you talking about?''

Federal officials, on the other hand, expect the redesigned material to quicken assimilation and bolster patriotism. They say feedback from scholars, community based groups and pilot test sites has been positive. More than 90 percent of a pilot group of about 4,000 immigrants passed on the first attempt, higher than the current rate.

'It's more meaningful learning,' said Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the Office of Citizenship within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 'More analysis of concepts rather than just mere facts.'

Aguilar said he doesn't think the test is harder, just better. He suspects many simply fear change.

With the foreign-born population growing, he said, assimilation is increasingly important. Immigrants are predicted to make up nearly one in five Americans by 2050, compared with one in eight in 2005.

Several topics on the revamped exam are the same as on the existing test, including the Constitution, key historical events, citizen responsibilities. Some new questions look at U.S. geography and Cabinet-level positions.

After Oct. 1, for example, applicants will need to know the 'rule of law,' the significance of Sept. 11, 2001, and at least one promise people make when they become U.S. citizens.

No more will test-takers need to know which historical figure uttered, 'Give me liberty or give me death' or in which month the new president is inaugurated.

Applicants must correctly answer six of 10 civics and history questions asked of them by an immigration officer (out of the potential 100). In a separate written part of the naturalization test, they must show competency in English reading and writing.

Test-takers get two chances to pass.

Reynoso said some immigrants she works with, those with limited education and English skills, are nearly paralyzed by the pressure of the test, despite preparation.

Even Reynoso — who came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 12, speaks fluent English and is a college graduate — was nervous taking the naturalization exam last summer.

At the same time, she was cramming for college finals, working and caring for her husband and three small sons. She passed.

While Reynoso and co-worker Rosa Ortiz are apprehensive about how the change will affect test-takers, they appreciate the government's effort to hasten integration of immigrants and deepen understanding of America.

A challenge, Ortiz said, will be to develop new study techniques, as the range of acceptable responses also will increase. That could make for more lively and interactive classroom discussions.

'There will be more give and take,' Ortiz said.

Reynoso said the test pressure and ultimate victory in becoming a citizen adds to the sweetness of this Fourth of July.

She, her mom and six carloads of family members will be picnicking at their annual spot around Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium to watch fireworks.

The holiday will be especially poignant because it is the first Independence Day that Reynoso, her dad and mom together will share as complete members of the country they settled in 15 years ago. A moment will come, said Reynoso, 27, when adults pause to tell the little ones why the day is special. They'll express gratitude for the country in which they've reached many goals.

'I'll look at myself and say, 'I did it,'' said Reynoso. 'There's a sense of belonging.'