ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) – The U.S. citizenship test is being updated, and some immigrants and advocates worry the changes will hurt test takers with low English language skills.
The citizenship test is one of the final steps toward citizenship—a months-long process that requires years of legal permanent residency before applying.
Former Republican President Donald Trump’s administration After changing the exam in 2020, making it longer and harder to pass, many are still reeling. Within months, Democratic President Joe Biden took office and signed an executive order aimed at removing barriers to citizenship. In that spirit, the citizenship test has reverted to its previous version, which was last updated in 2008.
In December, US officials said the test was due for an update after 15 years. The new version is expected at the end of next year.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services has proposed adding a speaking section to the new test to assess English proficiency. An officer shows photos of ordinary situations, such as daily activities, weather or food, and asks the applicant to describe the photos in words.
In the current test, an officer assesses speaking ability by asking personal questions that the applicant has previously answered on a natural paper during the citizenship interview.
“I think it’s harder for me to see the pictures and explain them,” said Genet Mhreta, who immigrated from Ethiopia 10 years ago and passed the citizenship test in May and became a U.S. citizen in Minnesota in June.
Mehratha, 32, learned English as an adult after moving to the US and found pronunciation difficult. She worries that adding a new speaking section based on photos instead of personal questions will make the test harder for others like her.
Shay Avni, who immigrated from Israel five years ago and became a U.S. citizen last year, said the new speaking section can add to the stress they feel during the test.
“It can be intimidating to sit next to someone from the federal government, talk to them and talk to them. Some people have this fear anyway. If it’s not your first language, it can be more difficult. Maybe you will panic and not find the words to say what you want to express,” said Avni. “It is a test that determines whether you are a citizen or not. So there is a lot to lose.
Another proposed change would make the American history and government civics sections multiple-choice instead of the current oral short-answer format.
In a blog post, Bill Bliss, author of the Massachusetts citizenship book, gave an example of how the test can be difficult because it requires a large knowledge base.
A current civics question asks an officer to name a war that took place in the 1900s in the US. The applicant need only say one of five acceptable answers – World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War or Gulf War – to get the question correct.
But in the proposed multiple choice format, the applicant reads that question and selects the correct answer from the following choices.
A. civil war
b. Mexican-American War
C. Korean War
D. Spanish-American War
The applicant must know the five wars fought in the US in the 1900s to choose the correct answer, Bliss said.
Currently, an applicant must answer six out of 10 civics questions correctly to pass. Those 10 questions were selected from a bank of 100 civics questions. The applicant is not told which questions will be selected but can view and study 100 questions before taking the test.
Lynn Weintraub, citizenship coordinator for the Jones Library’s English as a Second Language Center in Massachusetts, said the format for the citizenship class makes the citizenship test difficult for people who struggle with English literacy. This includes immigrants, elderly immigrants, and people with disabilities that interfere with their test performance.
“We have a lot of students who are immigrants and they come from war-torn countries where they may not have had the opportunity to graduate or even go to school,” said Michelle Perot, citizenship coordinator at the San Diego Community College District’s College of Continuing Education.
“Learning to read and write is more difficult if you don’t know how to do it in your first language. My main concern with the multiple choice test is this; It’s a lot of reading,” Perot said.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said in a December announcement that the proposed changes “reflect best practices in test design” and help standardize the citizenship test.
Under federal law, most applicants for citizenship must demonstrate an understanding of the English language — including the ability to speak, read, and write words in regular use — and a knowledge of American history and government.
The agency said it will offer opportunities for public comment nationwide on the proposed changes in 2023. Then an external team of experts – in linguistics, civics and test development – will evaluate the test results and recommend ways to better implement the proposed changes, which will be implemented by the end of next year.
According to Sarah Goodman, a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, the US currently has the easiest citizenship test compared to other Western countries – Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Goodman said she uses the following metrics to determine the difficulty of the test: the number of questions required to pass and the total number of questions, the percentage of applicants who pass the test, the language level of the test, and whether questions have answers prepared to study before taking the test.
In the US exam, applicants must answer six out of 10 questions correctly to pass. According to recent estimates, 96% of applicants passed the test. The test is at the “high beginner” level of English, Goodman, and a question bank with answers is prepared for study in advance.
But in the German exam, Goodman said, applicants must answer 17 of the 33 questions correctly to pass. According to recent estimates, 90% of applicants pass the test. The test is at the “intermediate” level of German, according to Goodman. And a question bank with answers is provided.
The Canadian and UK tests are more difficult, and a question bank is not provided in the latter, Goodman said.
Elizabeth Jacobs, director of regulatory affairs and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies — a nonprofit think tank that advocates for less immigration — said the proposed changes would make the U.S. citizenship test easier for many people.
“We think this is the wrong direction,” Yacob said on behalf of the organization.
Jacobs said the multiple-choice format for the civics section puts the answer for each question in front of applicants, eliminating the memorization problem in the current exam.
Jacobs said her organization includes many materials and chooses to challenge American values, such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
She added that most people who seek citizenship in the U.S. are not in the country because of merit or immigration status, but because of family sponsorship, where someone in their family petitioned for citizenship before they became a U.S. citizen.
Jacobs said having a tougher test would help new citizens integrate into American society — and the economy — with sufficient English proficiency and integrate healthy democracy with civic knowledge and participation.
Not everyone agrees.
“Does the civics test even matter in the first place? I don’t know the answer to that question,” said Corlene Smith, director of immigration services for the Minnesota International Institute.
According to Smith, USCIS evaluates whether applicants have a criminal record, pay taxes and support their children financially.
“They’re already reviewing your background. Is it important to know and remember information about history and government? Smith added, “People who are born in the United States and who are natural-born citizens — most of these people don’t know most of the answers to the history of government questions.”
In the year In fiscal year 2022, more than 1 million people became U.S. citizens — one of the highest numbers since 1907, the first year of last year — and USCIS saw a more than 60 percent drop in citizenship applications compared to last year. The USCIS report was released in December.
Trisha Ahmed is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that hires journalists to report on issues covered by local newsrooms. Follow Trisha Ahmed on Twitter: @TrishaAhmed15