Considering the New Citizenship Exam

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“Statue of Liberty” by Alberto Cruz CC0 1.0

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently announced a significant revision of the civics test that immigrants take in order to become naturalized citizens. The revised version will be required for all applicants with a filing receipt date of December 1, 2020, and after. The reading, writing, and speaking portions of the test remain the same, but the civics test of U.S. history and government knowledge is substantially changed, lengthier, and arguably more difficult.

New test item content: More difficult

The content of the new civics exam is a combination of current questions (some exactly the same; some modified) and new questions related to U.S. history and government. (The current geography questions have been eliminated.) Some of the new questions and approved answers are more challenging than in the current test. Although an anonymous panel of educators advised on the creation of the items, and this participation presumably helped provide a reality-check on the appropriateness of topics and language, the result is still a more difficult and lengthier set of questions than currently used.

There are some content improvements that citizenship educators will probably welcome. New questions ask about the parts of the executive and judicial branches and the powers of the U.S. Congress and the President. The Supreme Court gets new questions about the number of justices needed to decide a case, the length of time justices serve, and the reason for lifetime appointments. (A lot of questions about the court, but certainly timely.) Woodrow Wilson has departed the test and some key historical figures have joined, including questions about Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. And a question about Susan B. Anthony is now expanded to invite students to learn about additional leaders of the women’s rights movement in the 1800s, including Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and others.

A few old questions have become more challenging. Instead of naming one promise contained in the Oath of Allegiance, applicants need to name two. Instead of naming two rights of everyone living in the U.S., applicants need to name three. And instead of naming three of the original 13 states, they need to name five.

Some test items seem more difficult than they actually are due to all the alternative acceptable answers. These alternatives might offer great enrichment for students at an advanced level, but most students will want to stick with the more straightforward answers. For example, a new question about documents that influenced the U.S. Constitution can be answered with the Virginia Declaration of Rights or the Iroquois Great Law of Peace. No worries, though, since the easy answer is the Declaration of Independence. And new questions about events of the Revolutionary War and Civil War include options to answer with the names of key battles, from Yorktown and Saratoga to Vicksburg and Antietam. Most students will probably want to opt for easier answers, such as the Declaration of Independence or the Emancipation Proclamation (unless they aspire to be Jeopardy contestants some day).

At least one content change should be controversial: The required answer to an existing question about who U.S. senators represent has been changed from “all people of the state” to “citizens in their state”. This isn’t correct. Given the current administration’s effort to not count all residents in this year’s census regardless of their legal status, it is reasonable to ask if this “error” is motivated by politics.

To help citizenship educators understand the civics test changes, I’ll share here the two comparison documents I always create when preparing a new edition of my citizenship course:

You can download the 2008 questions (with a comparison to the new 2020 questions) here.

You can download the new 2020 questions (with a comparison to the 2008 questions) here.

New test length and duration: The greater challenge

The current 2008 version of the civics test requires applicants to answer up to 10 questions from a list of 100 potential questions and answers, and they need to correctly answer six of them. In the new 2020 version, 20 questions will be asked from a list of 128 possible questions and answers, and applicants need to correctly answer 12. (For applicants who qualify by age and length of permanent resident status for the “65/20” special consideration, ten questions will be asked from a list of 20, and six correct answers will be required.)

In actuality, while the new civics test is more than double in length, it could triple in duration for many applicants. In the current version, as soon as the applicant answers six of the possible ten questions correctly, the test is ended. However, in the new version, applicants will need to answer all 20 questions regardless of whether they have already answered 12 correctly. This will potentially triple the amount of time that USCIS officers need to administer the civics portion of the exam to some applicants — resulting in the possibility of longer and fewer interviews per day for USCIS officers, further exacerbating the agency’s backlog in processing citizenship applications.

Since the civics knowledge requirements will increase as applicants prepare to answer a larger set of potential questions, the goal of refreshing the test and improving its meaningfulness will have been achieved. Doubling the civics test’s length and potentially tripling its duration places an unnecessary burden on the applicant, the officer, and the naturalization process.

Some concerns and an opportunity for policy input

The current 2008 exam was developed with a significant amount of pilot testing, stakeholder input, item revision, and field-testing. A guiding principle was to assure that the test was standardized, fair, and appropriate, without being more difficult or decreasing the pass rate. There was also a good amount of transparency in that development process. For the 2020 changes, comparatively less information has been made public. Perhaps most important, it is unclear to what extent adequate field-testing has occurred in actual USCIS settings to assure that the new civics test is fair, reliable, and not increasing the incidence of failure. Presumably, the shutdown of agency offices earlier this year due to the pandemic and the ensuing backlog had some impact on the piloting. More technical information from USCIS about the field-testing would be helpful.

Although the new civics test is scheduled to be in effect for all new applicants as of December 1, the comment period for submission of feedback to USCIS about the policy change has been extended to December 14. So there is time for stakeholders to offer comments, suggestions, and questions.

From my perspective, it makes sense for USCIS to delay implementation until the new administration is able to review the test content, share its development process and piloting results, and assure that the new test is not having an unintended outcome — or perhaps currently intended — of increasing failure rates and slowing the nation’s naturalization process.

Read the USCIS Policy Alert about the new civics test.

Read the USCIS news release about the test.

Access information about how to submit feedback to USCIS regarding the policy change. (deadline is December 14, 2020)

Voices of Freedom: English and Civics for U.S. Citizenship, by Bill Bliss

bill.bliss@languageandcommunication.org

Bill Bliss is a language and civics educator at Language & Communication Associates in Massachusetts.

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