New US citizenship test stresses democratic values

By Arun Kumar

Washington, Sep 29 (IANS) The US government has made public the 100 questions that will be on the new citizenship test that a million immigrants from around the world take to become Americans every year.

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Thousands of Indians taking the test have found it relatively easy thanks to their comfort level with English though officials insist that the new test is only meant to more deeply assess aspiring Americans’ grasp of democratic values.

The new test to be given from October 2008 was finalised after a pilot programme in 10 cities. Of more than 6,000 applicants who volunteered to take the pilot test, 92.4 percent passed, officials said. The pass rate on the old test is 84 percent.

Sample some of the new questions: “What do the 13 stars on the American flag represent?” “What territory did the US buy from France in 1813?” and “What major event happened on Sep 11, 2001 in the US?”

Others are simply worded differently. For instance, “What country did we fight during the Revolutionary War?” has been changed into “Why did the colonists fight the British?” And “What special group advises the President?” now reads “What does the President’s Cabinet do?”

“I think what we’ve achieved through the process is a better test, concept-oriented, but is not harder,” according to Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the Office of Citizenship, a division of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

That does not mean it is easier. Officials attributed the higher pass rate to the test-takers’ studying, which they said is a must for the new exam – unlike for the current test, which some critics say encourages rote memorisation but little understanding.

Half of the 100 new questions were revised items from the current test and half are new. The pilot test had 142 questions. Several that were widely answered incorrectly were reworded. Other difficult questions were dropped, Aguilar said.

The citizenship test is administered orally and, except in rare cases, in English. Applicants must answer correctly six out of a randomly assigned, representative selection of 10 questions. About 700,000 immigrants were naturalized last year, officials said.

The plan to redesign the test has drawn fire from some immigrant advocacy groups, which said the overhaul and increased application fees would make naturalization more difficult.

Federal immigration officials said they worked with immigrant advocates, think tanks and academics to develop the test. The trial tests were also given to limited-English students at 64 adult education centres nationwide.

To take the citizenship test, one must be a legally admitted permanent resident for at least five years (three years if married to a citizen), demonstrate “good moral character,” facility with basic English, and “basic knowledge of US history, government, and civic principles”.

Those eligible to become citizens must also pass the civics exam as well as a test of English proficiency in reading and writing.