New Citizenship Test To Begin Next Fall

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007

The U.S. government made public yesterday the 100 questions that will be on the new citizenship test, an exam that officials said is meant to more deeply assess aspiring Americans' grasp of democratic values.

The questions were selected after a pilot program this spring 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.

On the new test, immigrants who apply for citizenship after October 2008 will no longer be asked "What country did we fight during the Revolutionary War?" Instead, they might face the question "Why did the colonists fight the British?" Instead of "What special group advises the President?," the question will be "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," Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the Office of Citizenship, a division of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said at a news conference.

That does not mean it is easier, officials said. They 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 memorization 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, officials said. Other difficult questions were dropped, Aguilar said.

One pilot question asked about the idea behind the Federalist Papers. Many volunteers struggled with that, so it was revised to read: "The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers." The correct answers are James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and Publius -- the pen name used by the three authors.

Although that question seems to require the kind of memorization the redesign was meant to discourage, Aguilar said studying a question that explains the Federalist Papers' purpose helps immigrants "identify with those principles."

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. They said they also gave trial tests to limited-English students at 64 adult education centers nationwide.

Among the organizations consulted was the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which released a statement yesterday saying it was "deeply disappointed" with the final test. Policy director Fred Tsao said several new questions -- such as "What is the 'rule of law?' " -- are too abstract.

"Political scientists and philosophers struggle with that question," Tsao said. The new test, he said, could "block out people who are older or are less well-educated. The immigration service is going to have to work really hard to get the word out and to train its officers on how to administer it in a fair and sensitive way."

Tsao, who had not seen the report on the pilot test's results, said pass rates might have been high because the takers were not randomly selected but were volunteers who might have been confident in their preparation.

Yesterday morning, an unscientific sample of unprepared, born-and-bred Americans quizzed in Lafayette Square -- across from the answer to deleted question No. 78, "What is the name of the President's official home?" -- performed admirably.

District resident Brian Goldberg, 38, got eight right. He was on such a roll that he wanted to keep going, which led to a question about what Benjamin Franklin is famous for. A native of Philadelphia, Goldberg did not hesitate, citing Franklin's lightning rod, his advocacy of the turkey as the national bird and his reputation as a philanderer.

"He liked the ladies," Goldberg said.

All are certainly things for which Franklin is known. None, however, are provided by the immigration agency as an acceptable answer. Those are: Franklin was a U.S. diplomat, the oldest member of the Constitutional Convention, the first postmaster of the United States, the author of "Poor Richard's Almanac" and the starter of the first free libraries.

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