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Posted December 1, 2006
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New Citizens Will Need Deeper Knowledge


WASHINGTON, Nov. 30 — The federal government rolled out a new citizenship test Thursday to replace an exam that critics say has encouraged prospective Americans simply to memorize facts, rather than fully understand the principles of a democracy.

The exam will be assessed in a pilot program in 10 cities beginning early next year.

Gone are these questions: “How many stripes are there in the flag?”; “What color are the stripes on the flag?”; “What do the stripes on the flag represent?”; and the obvious, “What are the colors of our flag?” The new exam rephrases the questions to focus on what the stripes represent, asking, “Why do we have 13 stripes on the flag?” or “Why does the flag have 13 stripes?” (The answer: Because the stripes represent the original 13 colonies).

“Our goal is to inspire immigrants to learn about the civic values of this nation so that after they take the oath of citizenship they will participate fully in our great democracy,” said Emilio Gonzalez, director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services, which has been working since 2000 to develop a new test.

Focusing on Principles, Not Facts
The Citizenship and Immigration Services has devised 144 questions for a new citizenship examination. Here is a sampling of the questions, which will be tested in 10 cities beginning next year. Correct answers are listed (some questions have more than one correct answer). The entire exam is available online at www.uscis.gov.
Name one important idea found in the Declaration of Independence.
People are born with natural rights. The power of government comes from the people. The people can change their government if it hurts their natural rights. All people are created equal.
What type of economic system does the United States have?
Capitalist economy. Free market economy. Market economy.
Why do we have three branches of government?
So no branch is too powerful.
Name one example of checks and balances.
The president vetoes a bill, Congress can confirm or not confirm a president's nomination. Congress approves the president's budget. the Supreme Court strikes down a law.
Name one thing only the federal government can do.
Print money. Declare war. Create an army. Make treaties.
Name one famous battle from the Revolutionary war.
Lexington and Concord. Trenton. Princeton. Saratoga. Cowpens. Yorktown. Bunker Hill.
Name one of the writers of the Federalist Papers.
James Madison. Alexander Hamilton. John Jay.
arrow.gif (824 bytes)All the questions are available on the agency's Web site, www.uscis.gov

The result is 144 questions on civics and history, including 57 rephrased questions from the current exam. (All the questions are available on the agency’s Web site, www.uscis.gov).

The exam will be administered in the same way, with an applicant asked to answer orally 10 questions chosen by the examiner. Six correct answers are required to pass. According to the citizenship agency, about 600,000 immigrants pass the test and are naturalized each year.

The revised test will be introduced in a pilot program in 10 cities chosen for their geographic range and high percentage of immigrants. Applicants will be asked to volunteer to take the pilot exam and will have the option of taking the current exam if they fail the new one.

Officials say the goal of the pilot program is to assess the effectiveness of the exam and refine the exam’s questions or answers. Before the new test is implemented nationwide in 2008, it will be pared down to the current number of 100 questions.

The exam will be tested in Albany; Boston; Charleston, S.C.; Denver; El Paso; Kansas City, Mo.; Miami; San Antonio; Tucson; and Yakima, Wash.

In developing the revised exam, the agency worked with test development contractors, history and government scholars and experts in English as a second language to improve ways to focus on an analytical understanding of the acceptable answers.

“The current exam did not elicit enough civics knowledge and values we as Americans hold true,” said Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for the citizenship agency. “At the end of the test, there was no demonstrable knowledge that the new citizens were ready to participate in our government on the federal, state or community level.”

Ellen Mercer, a senior program officer at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, an advocacy organization that was part of a focus group about the revisions, said, “The purpose of redesigning the test is to make it more meaningful — and also to update it — for the people applying for U.S. citizenship.”

The current exam has not been changed since 1986. Before that, no official test existed.

Besides the oral questions, the revised exam, like the 1986 version, gives applicants three chances to read and write a sentence correctly in English. But the sentences focus exclusively on civics and history rather than on a range of topics, and to prepare for the test, applicants will be given study materials and a civics-based vocabulary list.

Another way the two exams differ is that the new questions will be weighed by level of difficulty to ensure that each exam tests equivalent knowledge. How the questions will be weighted will be determined by the results of the pilot program. Part of the pilot program includes training test administrators to make the process fairer and more consistent nationwide.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Citizenship “has done everything imaginable to make the test more meaningful, but not more difficult,” Ms. Mercer said.

Several advocacy organizations are reviewing the exam to determine whether the level of English is appropriate and whether the civics questions are understandable.

“We all want to look at the questions carefully to ensure fairness and compliance of the law,” said Rosalind Gold, a senior director at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Ms. Gold added that while the citizenship agency had made progress in ensuring that the exam was administered fairly, “there needs to be continued improvement in training examiners so they don’t abuse the discretion they’re given to administer exams.”

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, National, of Friday, December 1, 2006.                                   

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