Domestic Affairs

The US Citizenship Test Needs to be Overhauled

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. take the citizenship test. This week, I was one of them. I was assigned a date, time, and a USCIS location where I would take the test. Beforehand, I looked through many practice questions to get a feel for the things they would ask, thinking that there was no way that the questions would be that easy. I mean, there are whole preparation courses for this test. It turns out I was wrong. The questions I faced were identical to the examples I had seen, and after six quick questions that featured the likes of, “What is the name of the President of the United States now?” and “Name one state that borders Mexico,” the civics portion was over.

Meanwhile, the extent of reading and writing comprehension tested was a matter of reading, “We have 100 senators” and then writing that out onto the same tablet from which I had read the phrase. I went to school here in the U.S. and studied history and government, so of course I found this easy. However, I later discovered that USCIS publishes the set of 100 possible test questions and answers. Most of these answers are just a few words long. While this test does favor those who are fluent English speakers, the pass rate is 90% on the first attempt (the U.S. is possibly the only country in the world where a language requirement is frowned upon though). So, if people can know all the questions they may face and the answers are short enough to be quickly learned, it raises serious questions about the value of the test. What exactly is its purpose if it just consists of memorizing a couple of answers to questions? Are concerns about changing the test valid?

Let us consider why the U.S., or any country for that matter, has citizenship tests. People live in the U.S. for many years before even being eligible to apply for citizenship. For most, it takes years to get a Green Card, and then it will typically take five more years before they can apply for citizenship, with that process itself potentially taking up to a year or longer. If they are already paying taxes, following the law, interacting with citizens, and experiencing American culture as a whole, then what is the point of having a citizenship test and not just automatically transitioning a person into that status? Of course, there is more to the overall process, but most of that is waiting for the application to be processed, with the real crux of it being preparing for and taking the test.

The reasoning for having a test must come out of the differences between having a Green Card versus citizenship and verifying whether a person should get those additional rights. Citizens possess U.S. passports, and they can bring in more family members and sponsor them for Green Cards. Potentially, the government would want to check that a person does not have many family members who may become financial burdens to the country by using federal benefits given to Green Card holders. However, sponsors must accept financial responsibility for these people, so that is not an issue. Citizens also have access to higher clearance jobs, but there is no need for a test for this either, as it is just a matter of conducting background checks on permanent residents. 

In terms of both immigration and jobs, there is already a level of availability for Green Card holders. They can apply for visas for their partner and children, are able to travel outside the country for longer periods of time, and have access to most jobs that those on a visa may not have.

The crucial difference comes in the form of voting and civic participation in general. Only citizens may vote in elections, and only citizens may run for office. To engage in government, it is important to know how the government works and why the Founding Fathers set things up the way that they are. Without such knowledge, there is the risk (and existence) of people trying to tear down the system due to not knowing the reasoning for the structure of government. The majority of citizens born in America will have, at least in theory, extensively gone through this process throughout their education. One of the goals of civics classes is to create better citizens who can engage in government and uphold their civic duties. Even if those things are not taught properly in school, these people still acquire an ingrained sense of American values for government, such as individual rights and the decentralization of power.

Thus, educating people about the American system and values seems to be the goal of citizenship tests. Otherwise, the citizenship process would establish a different standard for being a naturalized citizen than a citizen by birth, which does not make sense given that millions of people and potential future voters go through this process. If the purpose of the test was to assess logical reasoning, then it would not be based around American civics content. And even if that was the case, what would be the point of verifying such capabilities for aspiring citizens and not for aspiring permanent residents? 

Having people understand the system before they try to change it is not an unreasonable expectation. The U.S. is vastly different from the countries of most immigrants. Without a historical understanding, something like the Second Amendment would not make sense to people, regardless of if they agreed with it or not. Becoming a citizen just because you have lived in the country for many years is not a right. It is a privilege. While the U.S. may be a country of immigrants from different backgrounds, there must still be some common ground.

However, instead of a proper test of civics knowledge, what exists involves memorizing the answers to 100 relatively simple questions about government and getting six out of ten of them right. It condenses years’ worth of history and government education into questions like, “Where is the Statue of Liberty?” So what if an applicant can memorize this fact, and how is it applicable to being a citizen? What good is having a question about how checks and balances prevent one branch from becoming too powerful if you need no knowledge about how this works?

While it may seem like I have spent a lot of time talking about why a comprehensive test should exist, this is because many people object to the idea of making the test more difficult. There were several objections made to the changes by the Trump administration to increase the number of total questions and change some answers. Biden promptly scrapped these changes.  While these changes did not address the main issues with the test, some of the objections to a more challenging test do not make sense. However, by considering what the test should do and some of the objections, we can come up with a better approach.

The way to go would be having something like the process of getting a driver’s license or a real estate license. People would not just complete a basic test but go through actual training that covers critical aspects of American history and government in a sufficient level of detail. The government would authorize various businesses to provide lectures/courses covering the Revolutionary War, the Constitution, Federalist Papers, etc. Finishing these would get a person through the “test” portion of the process. Of course, it would not go into extreme depth about every incident as if it were an AP U.S. History class, but having a solid foundation in these concepts is critical. That way, there is a starting point for further exploration into these topics. Additionally, it provides something much closer to what citizens born in the U.S. go through in their education.

Now, let us address some potential objections. One objection is that some people already supposedly spend months studying for the test, and therefore it must be difficult enough as it is. To this, I would say that this is due to the language requirement rather than the content itself, making it a challenge for English learners. If people were to take these questions in their native language, would this pose a significant challenge for most? I do not think so. To remedy this, offer courses in appropriate languages. People would likely be able to better learn the content this way as well. Given that many places already offer ballots in different languages, we should eliminate the English reading and writing portions of the test. These do nothing for the test itself. If the government wanted English proficiency, then there could be a similar route in terms of mandating English courses. 

Objections were also made that Trump’s extended test would burden USCIS due to longer test times and higher failure rates. However, allowing businesses to take on the duty of providing lectures would help avoid bottlenecking the process through USCIS and enable it to focus on all the background work of processing applications, which takes most of the agency’s time (eight months on average). Of course, some may be concerned that it is unethical for businesses to be involved in this process. While I do not think there is a great deal of issue with businesses teaching courses, these concerns could be addressed by conducting frequent audits. Furthermore, these courses, like driver’s education, would be more about learning than testing and would address concerns about a trickier “test” discouraging permanent residents from applying for citizenship.

Many would also counter that much of this content may be information that many citizens do not know. But we cannot base the test on what an average Joe may know, as there are plenty of people who are woefully uninformed about history and government. The fact that citizens do not know these things is a failure of education and is not a justification for the government’s failure to test proper knowledge. Such an attitude also seems like a slippery slope to creating a more and more uninformed voter population. The lower standard expected from citizens means a lower standard for the test, which creates more citizens who align with that standard and serve to prop it up for future applicants.

Enacting this plan would undoubtedly increase the time commitment, or at least the intellectual engagement, for people applying for citizenship. But given that people will already have the stability of being permanent residents and that voting rights are on the table, this is a worthwhile approach. 

If citizens have the power to put people into office who make decisions that can affect hundreds of millions of people, then they really ought to be well-informed. If it already takes months to study for the current test, a 20-hour course should not be much more of a time commitment. By making these improvements, we could hopefully bring about a more educated population that better fuels the democratic machine.

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