New Naturalization Test Makes Questionable Changes

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced changes to the Civics test required of most applicants for U.S. citizenship.   The new test will apply to naturalization applications filed on or after December 1, 2020.  It raises the question of the motive behind the changes, given that they are unlikely to produce “better” citizens, and given the ideological or inaccurate answers provided for some of the new or amended questions.

Applicants to naturalize have historically been asked questions about U.S. history and government from a list of 100 questions.   A 60% minimum score is required to pass, based on answering at least 6 of 10 questions asked during an oral interview.

The new test introduces 88 new questions and increases the list of possible questions to 128.  Naturalization applicants will be asked 20 questions and must answer at least 12 correctly.

More concerning than the increased number of questions are the civics test content changes, and the process by which the revisions were made.  As the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) has pointed out,

No evidence has been put forth why these major revisions to the test are needed. Furthermore, unlike the previous process for updating the test, USCIS has made these proposed changes largely in secret, with no opportunity for stakeholder engagement or input. That previous process involved six years of study and analysis with a great deal of input from subject matter experts, including the National Academy of Sciences. Further, the previous process included a four-month long pilot with over 6,000 volunteer applicants at 10 USCIS locations across the country. We understand this new test was piloted with less than 250 applicants over just five weeks.

Some questions have taken on a decidedly ideological slant.  For example, the prior version of the civics test asks  “Who does a U.S. Senator represent?”, and provides the accurate answer “all people of the state”.   The new version asks the same question, but provides the legally incorrect, ideologically-biased answer “(c)itizens of their state”.  The new test provides the same incorrect answer about U.S. Representatives.

Other questions in the new version require more answers to be approved as correct, such as naming three, rather than the previous two, promises that an immigrant makes when becoming a U.S. citizen, or naming five of the original thirteen colonies, rather than three, as required in the previous test.

In addition, some of the new questions are confusing and their suggested answers are not necessarily correct, such as a question about how many Supreme Court Justices are needed to decide a case.  The acceptable answer provided is five, but the number of Justices needed to decide to hear a case is four.

Like the prior test, the new test asks questions that many native born U.S. citizens, who may not have studied U.S. history outside of an obligatory high school class, would be hard pressed to answer, such as the name of an author of the Federalist papers, the name of the territory purchased by the U.S. in 1803, the name of one leader of the women’s rights movement in the 1800s, or the significance of the stars and stripes on the U.S. flag.

Finally, the test asks some questions where the “correct” answers seem limited or arbitrary, such as one asking for an example of American innovation, and provides the following answers that would be accepted as correct:  light bulb, automobile, skyscrapers, airplane, assembly line, moon landing, and integrated circuit.

In addition to increasing the filing fee to apply for citizenship by 83% (currently blocked by a federal court injunction), the administration’s civics test revisions raise another potential barrier for permanent residents who hope to become citizens.

Public comment is being accepted through December 14, 2020.   If you’d like to comment opposing these changes, CLINIC has a comment portal here.

The full list of questions can be viewed here.