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December 1, 2006

the new INS citizenship exam

(Dayton, OH) Today the Immigration and Naturalization Service issued a new citizenship exam. This is the test that immigrants must pass to become US citizens. The revision is being reported as a big improvement. The Washington Post says,

Want to become a citizen? Get a copy of the Bill of Rights. The U.S. government is revising the new citizenship exam so that it emphasizes applicants' grasp of American democracy over their knowledge of trivia -- such as the name of the president's house or the colors of the flag.

The old exam was problematic. Instead of asking questions that tested people's capacity to be active and responsible members of the political community--"citizens"--it posed nitty-gritty factual questions that you could memorize without any understanding. For instance, you had to be able to state the date on which the Constitution was written, without knowing what the Constitution said.

On a memorable evening in 2001, I helped a Hmong immigrant in St. Paul to memorize answers from the INS's practice book. He had no idea what the answers meant, nor could he ever use the information he had memorized in his own interest or to help the United States.

Also in the Twin Cities, immigrant students from the Jane Addams School made a video about this problem. They asked shoppers in the Mall of America (i.e., "Middle America") to answer questions from the citizenship exam. The rate of correct answers was low.

We should probably congratulate the INS for rewriting the test, but I'm not sure how much progress has been achieved. Sample questions from the pilot version are online. I like these: "Name one right or freedom from the First Amendment." "Name two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy." And "What group of people was taken to America and sold as slaves?" However, I'm not sure it's useful to ask: "The House of Representatives has how many voting members?" Or "How old must a President be?"

We know that people who know this kind of fact are also more engaged in politics and civic life. However, I suspect that's because they have gleaned knowledge from discussions, meetings, and using the news media. It's not clear that making people memorize such facts would increase their engagement.

We also know, from CIRCLE's recent survey, that younger American adults would mostly fail the new exam if they had to take it.

December 1, 2006 11:03 AM | category: none


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