(by Stephen Dinan, WashingtonTimes.com) – The federal government yesterday introduced a new U.S. citizenship civics exam designed to force would-be citizens to go beyond memorizing historical facts and instead grasp the fundamental meaning of being an American.

Gone are questions about the number of states in the union or what country the U.S. fought in the Revolutionary War. In their place are questions about why the colonists went to war with Britain or what powers are held exclusively by the federal government.

“It’s no longer a test about how many stars are on the flag or how many stripes, it’s a test that genuinely talks about those things that make America what it is,” said Emilio Gonzalez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

The goal, he said, was a better test, not a harder test – and the results of a pilot program bore that out. More than 92 percent of the pilot group passed the test on the first attempt, far higher than the 84 percent rate of passage for first-timers on the current exam.

The pilot tested 142 questions, but the pool was narrowed to 100. Would-be citizens are asked 10 questions, and an immigrant must answer six correctly to pass the civics portion.

The civics questions comprise half of the naturalization test, and the other half is a test of English skills. The test is administered in English, except for longtime residents over a certain age, who can take the test in their own language.

But some senators said yesterday the test should do more to make immigrants prove knowledge of English. Nine senators, all Republicans, said in a letter to President Bush that the current method of dictating sentences to be written doesn’t really test an immigrant’s abilities.

“We are deeply concerned that the English exam remains inadequate,” wrote the lawmakers, led by Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma. “U.S. citizenship is a great privilege. We should exercise care to confer it only upon individuals who have demonstrated that they are capable of exercising the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, including the right to vote, in English.”

But USCIS officials said the goal of the English portion is to test a working knowledge.

Many of the 42 questions dropped between the pilot testing and the final set of 100 questions were eliminated because they were too difficult linguistically, [Alfonso] Aguilar [Chief of the Office of Citizenship] said. But he said they did not drop any questions on key fundamental concepts of citizenship.

One dropped question inquired about the intent of the Federalist Papers, the newspaper articles written by three of the Founding Fathers to try to urge adoption of the Constitution. The committee that wrote the questions decided it was too difficult linguistically and instead wrote a question asking for the name of one of the three authors: James Madison, John Jay or Alexander Hamilton.

“The point is we want to make sure they understand, as they study, the main purpose of the Federalist Papers,” Mr. Aguilar said.

Also gone is a question about the United Nations, as are questions about the 50th state added to the union; the name of the ship that carried the Pilgrims to Massachusetts; and some questions about famous Americans, such as the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the man who uttered “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Instead, the test focuses heavily on the Constitution’s road map for a republican form of government and on the division of powers and roles among the various branches and agencies of the government.

“The theory is as they study the fundamentals of our history and civics, they will also identify with them and become attached to our country,” Mr. Aguilar said.

During the next year, anyone who applies for naturalized citizenship will be able to choose whether to take the old or new test. Those applying after Oct. 1, 2008, must use the new test, which was revamped in a seven-year process that cost $6.5 million.

Those who fail the citizenship test may retake it once. If they fail a second time, they must file a new naturalization application.


The civics portion of the test for naturalized citizenship has been revamped to focus on concepts instead of history trivia. Here is a sample of questions that have been altered or added to the exam, along with accepted answers.

Some of the new questions:

What did Susan B. Anthony do?

A: Fought for women”s rights.

A: Fought for civil rights.

What is one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for?

A: U.S. diplomat

A: Oldest member of the Constitutional Convention

A: First postmaster general of the United States

A: Writer of “Poor Richard’s Almanac”

A: Started the first free libraries.

What is one responsibility that is only for United States citizens?

A: Vote

A: Serve on a jury.

What is freedom of religion?

A: You can practice any religion you want, or not practice a religion.

Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the federal government. What is one power of the federal government?

A: To print money.

A: To declare war.

A: To create an army.

A: To make treaties.

Some of the altered questions:

Old question:

Name the amendments that guarantee or address voting rights.

New question:

There are four amendments to the Constitution about who can vote. Describe one of them.

A: Citizens 18 and older can vote.

A: You don’t have to pay a poll tax to vote.

A: Any citizen can vote (women and men can vote).

A: A male citizen of any race can vote.

Old question:

Who was president during the Civil War?

New question:

What was one important thing that Abraham Lincoln did?

A: Saved (or preserved) the Union.

A: Freed the slaves (Emancipation Proclamation).

A: Led the U.S. during the Civil War.

Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

Copyright 2007 News World Communications, Inc.  Reprinted with permission of the Washington Times.  This reprint does not constitute or imply any endorsement or sponsorship of any product, service, company or organization.  Visit the website at www.washingtontimes.com.


NOTE: The new citizenship test consists of 10 civics questions (out of a possible 100 that applicants will be able to study when preparing for the test). The article is not clear, but it also appears that the questions are not multiple choice, but short answer. Applicants must answer the questions in English. It is also not clear if this portion of the test is oral or written. It could depend on how well the applicant writes in English – perhaps applicants will have a choice.

1. How has the civics portion of the U.S. citizenship exam been changed?

2. What is the goal of the new test, according to USCIS director Emilio Gonzalez?

3. Pilot tests are conducted to evaluate how good the questions are before introducing a new test. What were the results for the new test in the pilot group compared to passing grades on the current exam?

4. Applicants will be asked 10 questions from a possible 100 they need to know for the civics part of the test. How many does an applicant have to answer correctly to pass?

5. a) The English part of the test was not changed. How is an applicant’s knowledge of English tested?
b) Why have 10 Senators written a letter to President Bush expressing their concern for the English exam?
c) Do you think the Senators have a legitimate concern? Explain your answer.

6. Out of the 142 questions in the pilot test, why were 42 dropped?

7. a) According to Mr. Aguilar, what is the theory behind revising the test?
b) Do you think this will be effective? Explain your answer.


Read a Fact Sheet on how the test was redesigned at the USCIS website here. (NOTE: This document is in PDF format.)

For a list of the original 142 pilot questions posted at About.com click here.

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