Testing, Testing

Saturday, May 12, 2007

WHAT IS or should be required to become an American?

According to U.S. law, the criteria include basic knowledge of English and U.S. civics. What "basic knowledge" means, however, varies from region to region. Citizenship applicants must answer 10 of the 96 civics questions produced by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. But which 10 questions, whether the hardest 10 or the easiest 10, and whether they are written or oral, is determined by the office or the person administering the test. As a result, cities can have different tests and different pass rates.

Now, concluding a decade-long project to standardize the naturalization process, Citizenship and Immigration Services is trying out a new test in 10 cities. Agency spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan says the pilot test questions are selected randomly by computer, with a balance of hard and easy questions and a consistent mix of questions from different topics such as history and geography. Citizenship and Immigration Services has also infused the vocabulary lists for the English portion of the test with more civics-related terms such as "first lady."

The more controversial change to the test is the refocusing of the civics questions on American "concepts" rather than tight facts. The 142 pilot questions, of which about 100 will be kept, are meant to make the naturalization test "more meaningful," the agency says. Some pro-immigrant groups fear that "more meaningful" may be code for "harder." Many of the pilot questions are more abstract, such as asking what the rule of law means or what Ben Franklin was famous for. These open-ended questions seem to undercut the standardization goal since they are inherently more subjective. Citizenship and Immigration Services has released a list of the questions and correct answers, but they do not include every possible answer.

Other pilot questions seem beyond the scope of what American citizens, native-born or immigrant, are expected to know. We'd like to think everyone can name the authors of the Federalist Papers (Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, writing under the name "Publius") or identify the alliance of North American and European countries created during the Cold War (NATO), but should you be barred from citizenship if you can't? Given that naturalization applicants have already been legal permanent residents for years and have passed FBI background checks, there's no need to make them jump through hoops that most current citizens couldn't wriggle through without consulting Wikipedia. We hope that once the study is completed in a few weeks, officials will craft a test that maintains the current national pass rate of 84 percent, as they have said they will.

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