Test for U.S. Citizenship Faces Overhaul
The White House wants the exam to reflect what it means to be an American. But immigrant advocates fear new barriers.
By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has decided to revamp the civics test that hundreds of thousands of prospective citizens each year must pass to become Americans, and is developing a new exam, officials said Thursday.
President Bush alluded to the effort in his speech last week on immigration reform, and this week the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services convened a two-day conference of more than 100 immigrant advocates and academics at a hotel here to discuss the principles for change and its implications.
The current test has long been criticized as a random collection of
unrelated details that conveys little of the significance of citizenship.
But efforts to change it elicit
concern from immigrant advocates, who fear a new test could become a barrier to citizenship.
Some questions, like one about the colors of the flag, are so simple
they seem to belong on the civics equivalent of a driver's permit test.
Others, such as naming the
constitutional amendments that address voting rights, require study.
"I don't want to make the test harder, and I don't want to make it easier.
I want to make it more meaningful," said Eduardo Aguirre Jr., director
of the citizenship
agency, one of three new Homeland Security divisions that were part of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service.
A question on the current test asks, "What are the first 10 amendments
to the Constitution called?" A hypothetical question on the new test might
be, "What does the
Bill of Rights mean for you?" said another official.
Aguirre said he also wants to move toward a more standardized test.
The current test is an oral exam in which an examiner picks about 10 civics
questions from a
list of 100 included in a study guide. The examiner's discretion can result in lack of uniformity. Two people being tested by the same examiner on the same day may
be asked questions that differ in difficulty.
The government plans to develop a new civics test this year, try it
out next year and complete the switch in 2006, a USCIS official said. In
a related move, the
agency is already experimenting with changes to the English-language test that prospective citizens must also pass.
In his speech, Bush said the United States should set "high expectations for what new citizens should know."
"An understanding of what it means to be an American is not a formality
in the naturalization process…. New citizens [should] know not only the
facts of our history
but the ideals that have shaped our history," he said. "Every citizen of America has an obligation to learn the values that make us one nation: liberty and civic
responsibility, equality under God, and tolerance of others."
Nearly 574,000 people became U.S. citizens in 2002, the latest year
for which statistics are available. The law requires that people seeking
citizenship show that
they can understand and speak basic English and demonstrate "understanding of the fundamentals of the history, and of the principles and form of government, of the
The present version of the civics test dates from an amnesty program
for illegal immigrants developed in the mid-1980s. During the Clinton administration,
commission recommended that the test be replaced. The recommendation has languished until now.
The current test "is just not coherent," said political scientist Noah
Pickus, director of the Institute for Emerging Issues in Raleigh, N.C.,
and an advocate for changes
in the civics test.
"You can make a coherent and meaningful examination by identifying what
you believe are the key principles in our history and government," Pickus
added. "The first
thing is to identify what really matters and then to realize that you are trying to tell a story to a new citizen, to inspire and encourage them."
It may prove a challenge to translate the Bush administration's emphasis
on American values into questions that are supposed to provide an objective
whether a person is suited for citizenship, some experts said. For example, the president stressed "equality under God" as a basic value. A secularly minded person
might instead say, "equality under the law." Who would be right?
"There are a lot of ideas being thrown out about how you get at what
are the values of America," said Larry Gonzalez, Washington director of
the National Assn. of
Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "Many have expressed concern about how you get at what the fundamental values are. Some have suggested questions
about the war on terrorism." USCIS officials said they are far from deciding the content and language of the final questions.
Aguirre, the agency director, said his own experience as a naturalized
citizen is shaping his approach. In addition to making the test more meaningful,
determined to make testing more consistent. That may result in a smaller number of questions than the current 100 that examiners get to pick from.
Born in Cuba, Aguirre was naturalized in 1970 in Houston. He and his
wife, Maria Teresa, went to take the test on the same day. Both were fluent
in English and
understood the fundamentals of American democracy.
Aguirre said he breezed through a set of easy questions. But his wife
experienced a grilling. As the couple compared notes later, they realized
Maria Teresa had
gotten very different questions. "The individual who interviewed her gave her a much more difficult test," Aguirre said.
"The test that we have right now, though adequate, is not optimal," he said. "It is somewhat arbitrary."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
U.S. officials are considering revising the test for prospective citizens
to emphasize the significance of citizenship. Here are some examples of
questions and answers
from the current test:
1. What are the colors of our flag?
2. Who was the first president of the United States?
3. Name some countries that were our enemies during World War II.
4. What is the supreme law of the United States?
5. What were the original 13 states?
6. What is the name of the ship that brought the Pilgrims to America?
7. Name one right or freedom guaranteed by the 1st Amendment.
8. What kind of government does the United States have?
9. Who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner"?
10. Who said, "Give me liberty or give me death"?
1. Red, white and blue
2. George Washington
3. Germany, Japan and Italy
4. The Constitution
5. Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire,
New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South
Carolina and Virginia
6. The Mayflower
7. The rights to freedom of speech, religion, assembly and to petition the government
8. A republic
9. Francis Scott Key
10. Patrick Henry
Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
Los Angeles Times