Revamped citizenship test focuses more on conceptsby Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
Starting today, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will begin implementing a redesigned naturalization test that strives to be more meaningful. Federal authorities say the change is meant to encourage applicants to learn civic concepts and ideals, rather than memorized tidbits of information.
St. Paul, Minn. — Citizenship class has just started on the second floor of the International Institute in St. Paul. A small group of adult students gathers around a U-shaped table, with their three-ring notebooks in hand.
Ludger Dekarski of Germany and Jean Tian of China start to quiz each other on questions about the first Congressional Congress in 1774.
"At this meeting, the colonies decided that America should be a free country," Dekarski said. "They decided to start their own Army and elected the first commander in chief."
Tian interrupted, "George Washington."
Dekarski replied, "Oh, oh. George Washington, yes."
Dekarski, 46, checks the answer on a timeline he's made for himself. They're right. Then, he flips to the next question.
Dekarski, who has lived in St. Paul for 12 years, will be taking the old naturalization test, since he filed the application before Oct. 1. Other legal immigrants in the class who hadn't filed by the deadline will have to take the redesigned version of the test.
Dekarski didn't see a big difference between the two versions.
"A test is a test is a test," he said. "It's like, you are sitting in this office with one immigration officer, one on one, and at this moment you have to show them that you're worthy to become a U.S. citizen. And you better not screw that one up."
The structure of the test itself hasn't changed. Applicants will still need to prove they have knowledge of the English language, civics and history by answering correctly to six out of 10 open-ended questions.
What has changed is the way immigration officers will ask these questions. They say the more nuanced questions are meant to make the test more meaningful.
An applicant taking the old test might get a question like:
What is the most important right granted to United States citizens? (the right to vote.)
The new test rephrases that question to ask:
What are two rights only for U.S. citizens? (apply for a federal job, vote, run for office, carry a U.S. passport.)
Officials say both questions convey the same idea. But the new one allows for the applicant to answer in various, more complex ways.
"It's not just rote memorization," said Marilu Cabrera, Midwest spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "It actually involves the person in the process and helps them understand what are their rights, what are their responsibilities as an American."
Some questions on the new test are meant to touch on concepts, such as democracy and civic responsibility, according to Cabrera.
Other questions focus on geography and laws, such as identifying one U.S. territory (Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam) and naming the person who can veto bills (the president).
The revamped test is not meant to create roadblocks to citizenship, according to Cabrera.
The results from a pilot of the new test indicate it might actually be easier than the old one, she said. About 92 percent of participants passed on their first attempt, compared to 85 percent who pass the old one.
What is different is the level of comprehension and English language skills applicants will need to have in order to pass, she said.
"It's not meant to be harder. It's not meant to be easier," Cabrera said. "It's meant to be more meaningful. It's meant to be not a test that you're going to memorize and forget five minutes after you walk out of there."
Applicants who have been legal permanent residents for more than 20 years or who are 65 or older also have the option of requesting the old version of the test, Cabrera said.
At the International Institute, instructor Elizabeth Regalado teaches a lesson on the four Constitutional amendments that address voting rights. She jots the numbers on a white board.
"For the old test, you only need to know the numbers," said Regalado. "What are the amendments that address voting rights? You can say, 15, 19, 24, 26, which I think is kind of silly. That's probably one of the reasons they changed the test. Because what does that mean? You just know the numbers. On the new test, you have to know what the amendments mean."
Regalado has had to revamp her lesson plans to prepare some students for the old test and some for the new one. She agreed the old test could be mastered by memorization without really understanding the concepts.
That's why student Angel Hernandez is glad he'll be taking the new test. He didn't file by the by Oct. 1 deadline.
Hernandez, 38, is from El Salvador and has lived in Minnesota for 19 years. He became a resident five years ago, and says he likes the idea of a more thorough test.
"The new test, I feel like it's more specific and it gives you more detail," said Hernandez, of St. Paul. "I like to know what is the history of this country, not only for my own benefit, it's for my kids. If they're in school, they're going to ask me questions, and then I have the answer for them."
In addition to the Saturday morning classes, Hernandez said he's studying at home daily with wife. She also plans on taking the test next year.
- Morning Edition, 10/01/2008, 7:40 a.m.