The U.S. Citizenship Test: Learning, And Earning, Their Stripes
By William Booth
To do so, they must pay $95 and meet certain standards: They need to have lived in the country for five years (or three, if they are married to a U.S. citizen), be of good moral character (meaning no felony convictions), be of sound mind (a judgment call) and speak and understand English (unless they are elderly or disabled). Finally, they must pass what is generally referred to, in many different languages, as the Test -- a quiz on the basics of U.S. history and government. For many, the Test looms large in their minds, the ultimate Double Jeopardy.
Some new citizens have spoken to me of nightmares, before and even after the Test, in which a grand inquisitor from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) demands "Who wrote The Star-Spangled Banner?" And they freeze, like stunned gerbils. They absolutely know that Woody Guthrie wrote The Star-Spangled . . . .
BZZZZT! Wrong. Francis Scott Key is the correct answer. Go to the back of the line, or so the nightmare goes.
INS officials, of course, wince when they hear this kind of thing. They don't intend the nightmare to be real. For one thing, there is no official Test. It is up to each of the 33 district offices, and individual INS interviewers, to determine whether the aspiring American knows enough about the governing principles and history of the United States. Most district offices give applicants a list of 100 sample questions -- and the answers -- which the INS was happy to let us publish here (the answers are on Page C4).
When it comes time for their interview, said Jack Bolger, head of INS's "Citizenship USA" program in Florida, applicants typically will be asked about a dozen questions -- sometimes more, sometimes fewer. The would-be citizen can make a couple of mistakes, but cannot be completely clueless, Bolger said. The whole process takes about 10 minutes.
David Rosenberg, director of program initiatives at INS headquarters in Washington, knows the Test produces "a lot of unfounded anxiety, which we are trying to overcome . . . . It's not an impossible or difficult thing. We're not trying to trick people. On the other hand, you can't come in and grunt two words and we rubber stamp you."
So how tough are the questions?
More than a few are so easy as to be almost meaningless, such as "What are the colors of our flag?" That's a pitch anyone should be able to hit.
There are a few real puzzlers, though. To wit: "How many changes or amendments are there to the Constitution?" I confess that the correct answer (27) was not on the tip of my tongue.
Many are almost like Zen koans, such as "What is Congress?" Hmmmm. A lot of U.S. citizens might have trouble answering that one. Others suggest inappropriate responses. "What special group advises the President?" The answer is not "pollsters." It is, of course, "the Cabinet."
Others are ambiguous; even INS officials are not sure that "What is the most important right granted to United States citizens?" has just one correct answer (INS answer: "the right to vote"). What about freedom of speech? Religion?
You may feel different when you read the list, but I found a few too many of the sample questions fixated on the Pilgrims.
I asked a popular critic of American history instruction what he thought.
"The questions are typical of the ones you would find at the end of the chapters in a typical high school American history textbook," says James Loewen, a University of Vermont sociology professor and author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me."
"There's kind of an emphasis on factoids, which are smaller than facts, the stuff that no one can remember and probably shouldn't, such as what state was the 49th, Alaska or Hawaii?" Loewen says.
Loewen points to the question, "Who helped the Pilgrims?" (INS answer: the American Indians.) "It asks for a simple rote response, but lurking behind the question is a context, a whole missing story," the professor said. The American Indians did help the Pilgrims, but they were not "haplessly hospitable, as our origin myths have it," Loewen explains. The Indians who assisted the Pilgrims did so for specific reasons: They wanted a strategic alliance, a buffer against other tribes. They also were less likely to be inhospitable because a plague of uncertain origin wiped out many Indians a few years before the Pilgrims arrived -- a disease that Loewen and others suspect was bubonic plague, brought to the New World by British fishermen.
Well, that's very thorough, professor. But this is a citizenship test, not a master's thesis.
John Fonte, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, says he has no problem with the nuts-and-bolts questions about government, but he is disappointed that the INS does not ask more "substantial" questions about the meaning of being an American. He suggests that "What is the White House?" does not really get to the meat of our experiment in democracy.
Touche. INS officials believe there's room for improvement, and so they are developing a new, standardized test. "We would invite readers to give us ideas on this," said Rosenberg of the INS, who asks that ideas be mailed to the following address and not left on his home answering machine.
Suggestions may be sent to: Citizenship USA, 425 I St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20536.
1. What are the colors of the flag?
2. How many stars are there in our flag?
3. What color are the stars on our flag?
4. What do the stars on the flag mean?
5. How many stripes are there in the flag?
6. What color are the stripes?
7. What do the stripes on the flag mean?
8. How many states are there in the union (United States)?
9. What is the 4th of July?
10. What is the date of Independence Day?
11. Independence from whom?
12. What country did we fight during the Revolutionary War?
13. Who was the first president of the United States?
14. Who is the president of the United States today?
15. Who is the vice president of the United States?
16. Who elects the president of the United States?
17. Who becomes president of the United States if the president should die?
18. For how long do we elect the president?
19. What is the Constitution?
20. Can the Constitution be changed?
21. What do we call a change to the Constitution?
22. How many changes or amendments are there to the Constitution?
23. How many branches are there in our government?
24. What are the three branches of our government?
25. What is the legislative branch of our government?
26. Who makes the laws in the United States?
27. What is Congress?
28. What are the duties of Congress?
29. Who elects Congress?
30. How many senators are there in Congress?
31. Can you name the two senators from your state?
32. For how long do we elect each senator?
33. How many representatives are there in Congress?
34. For how long do we elect the representative?
35. What is the executive branch of our government?
36. What is the judicial branch of our government?
37. What are the duties of the Supreme Court?
38. What is the supreme law of the United States?
39. What is the Bill of Rights?
40. What is the capital of your state?
41. Who is the current governor of your state?
42. Who becomes president of the United States if the president and the vice president should die?
43. Who is the chief justice of the Supreme Court?
44. Can you name the 13 original states?
45. Who said, "Give me liberty or give me death"?
46. Which countries were our principal allies during World War II?
47. What is the 49th state of the Union (United States)?
48. How many terms can a president serve?
49. Who was Martin Luther King Jr.?
50. Who is the head of your local government?
51. According to the Constitution, a person must meet certain requirements in order to be eligible to become president. Name one of these requirements.
52. Why are there 100 senators in the Senate?
53. Who selects the Supreme Court justices?
54. How many Supreme Court justices are there?
55. Why did the Pilgrims come to America?
56. What is the head executive of a state government called?
57. What is the head executive of a city government called?
58. What holiday was celebrated for the first time by the American Colonists?
59. Who was the main writer of the Declaration of Independence?
60. When was the Declaration of Independence adopted?
61. What is the basic belief of the Declaration of Independence?
62. What is the national anthem of the United States?
63. Who wrote the Star-Spangled Banner?
64. Where does freedom of speech come from?
65. What is the minimum voting age in the United States?
66. Who signs bills into law?
67. What is the highest court in the United States?
68. Who was president during the Civil War?
69. What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?
70. What special group advises the president?
71. Which president is called the "father of our country"?
72. What is the 50th state of the Union (United States)?
73. Who helped the Pilgrims in America?
74. What is the name of the ship that brought the Pilgrims to America?
75. What were the 13 original states of the U.S. called?
76. Name three rights or freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.
77. Who has the power to declare war?
78. Name one amendment that guarantees or addresses voting rights.
79. Which president freed the slaves?
80. In what year was the Constitution written?
81. What are the first 10 amendments to the Constitution called?
82. Name one purpose of the United Nations.
83. Where does Congress meet?
84. Whose rights are guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?
85. What is the introduction to the Constitution called?
86. Name one benefit of being a citizen of the United States.
87. What is the most important right granted to U.S. citizens?
88. What is the United States Capitol (building)?
89. What is the White House?
90. Where is the White House located?
91. What is the name of the president's official home?
92. Name one right guaranteed by the First Amendment.
93. Who is the commander in chief of the U.S. military?
94. Which president was the first commander in chief of the U.S. military?
95. In what month do we vote for the president?
96. In what month is the new president inaugurated?
97. How many times may be a senator be reelected?
98. How many times may a congressman be reelected?
99. What are the two major political parties in the United States today?
100. How many states are there in the United States?
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company