< New US Citizenship Test Could Be Harder
By Dan Novak
09 July 2023

A new United States citizenship test is expected to be launched by late next year. Some immigrants and their supporters worry the updated exam will hurt test-takers with lower levels of English skills.

The test is one of the final steps to gain American citizenship. The entire process takes months. It also requires legal permanent residency for years before applying.

The test currently in use was last updated in 2008.

FILE - People become U.S. citizens during a naturalization ceremony at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minn., on June 21, 2023.(AP Photo/Trisha Ahmed)
FILE - People become U.S. citizens during a naturalization ceremony at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minn., on June 21, 2023.(AP Photo/Trisha Ahmed)

In 2020, the former presidential administration launched a new citizenship test. It was harder and longer than the test it replaced.

When President Joe Biden came in to office months later, he ordered an end to that test. The order re-established the former test.

Late last year, U.S. officials announced that the test would be updated.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has proposed that the new test update the English-speaking part of the test. It suggests that test givers show images of simple, everyday things like weather or food, and ask the applicant to describe what they see.

In the current test, an officer examines an applicant's speaking ability during the naturalization interview. The examiner asks personal questions that the applicant has already answered in writing, for naturalization documents.

"For me, I think it would be harder to look at pictures and explain them," said Heaven Mehreta. She emigrated from Ethiopia 10 years ago. Mehreta passed the naturalization test in May and, last month, she became a U.S. citizen.

Another proposed change would make the civics section on U.S. history and government multiple-choice. Currently, applicants give spoken short answers.

Bill Bliss is a language and civics educator in Massachusetts and a writer of citizenship textbooks. In a blog post, he gave an example of how the test would become more difficult and require more knowledge.

A current civics question asks the applicant to name a war fought by the U.S. in the 1900s. An applicant only needs to say one out of five correct answers — World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War or Gulf War — to get the question right.

But in the proposed test, the applicant would read that question and mark the correct answer from the following choices:

A. Civil War

B. Mexican-American War

C. Korean War

D. Spanish-American War

An applicant must know all five of the wars fought by the U.S. in the 1900s to choose the one correct answer, Bliss said. That requires a much "higher level of language proficiency and test-taking skill."

Currently, an applicant must answer six out of 10 civics questions correctly to pass. The 10 are among 100 possible civics questions. An applicant is not told which questions will be chosen for their test, but can see and study all the possible questions before taking the test.

Lynne Weintraub is with Jones Library's English as a Second Language Center in Massachusetts. She said the proposed test for the civics section could make the citizenship test harder for people who struggle with English literacy. That includes refugees, older immigrants and people who have disabilities.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said in a December announcement that the proposed changes "reflect current best practices in test design."

Under federal law, most applicants seeking citizenship must show an understanding of the English language. That includes speaking, reading and writing words in normal usage. Applicants must also show knowledge of U.S. history and government.

The agency said it will hold a nationwide trial of the proposed changes in 2023. Then, a group of experts in the fields of language, civics and test development will review the trial's results. They will suggest ways to best make changes.

More than 1 million people became U.S. citizens in the 2022 financial year. That is among the highest number documented since 1907, when officials started keeping such records.

I'm Dan Novak.

Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting from Associated Press.


Words in This Story

applicant — n. someone who formally asks for something

interview — n. a meeting at which people talk to each other in order to ask questions and get information

resident — n. someone who lives in a particular place

civics — n. the study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how government works

proficient — adj. good at doing something

reflect — v. to show

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