updated 11/13/2006 6:27:06 PM ET 2006-11-13T23:27:06

In an effort to make the citizenship exam more meaningful, the federal government said Monday it will test an exam that relies less on trivia — such as asking the name of the president’s house — and more on applicants’ grasp of American democracy.

The new exam will be given to volunteers beginning this winter in Albany, N.Y.; Boston; Charleston, S.C.; Denver; El Paso, Texas; Kansas City, Mo.; Miami; San Antonio; Tucson, Ariz.; and Yakima, Wash.

The current test is heavy on historical facts, and includes questions about the colors of the U.S. flag and the name of the form used to apply for citizenship. The new exam will ask about the Bill of Rights and the meaning of democracy.

“The idea is not to toss up roadblocks, it’s to make sure people who apply for citizenship and want to become citizens understand and adhere to the values we have as a society, the values that are part of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” said Shawn Saucier, spokesman for the Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The current exam doesn’t guarantee knowledge of those values, Saucier said. A person may know which state was the 49th to be added to the union, for example, but not understand voting rights, he said.

The portion of the citizenship exam used to test basic English reading and writing skills also will be changed to include civic vocabulary words, Saucier said.

“We want them to study and look at this information not toward the eye of memorizing it for a trivia exam,” he said.

During the pilot, officials hope to work out any problems with the test and refine the exam. The revised test will be given to all applicants for naturalization beginning in 2008.

125 questions to be tested
Officials will test 125 new questions on 5,000 people and eventually narrow the group of questions to 100, the same number that can be asked on the current exam. To pass, immigrants must correctly answer six of 10 questions given. If they fail, they will be given the option of taking the old test.

The changes could make the exam more difficult for some people, said America Calderon, the program manager at the Central Resource Center, a Washington, D.C., organization that offers citizenship and other programs to Latino immigrants. She guessed it also could push more people into formal classes, instead of trying to learn the information on their own.

“It’s more difficult because the typical immigrant is trying to struggle with English and trying to learn the 100 questions right now,” Calderon said.

But she supports the idea, because it could push new citizens to participate in their government, a goal of her organization. “In a way, it’s good they have a path to civic participation,” she said.

All U.S. citizens — not just new ones — could brush up on their civic knowledge, said Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that supports the assimilation of immigrants.

“It’s also good for the people who are already here, because there will be fewer problems and fewer friction if we all understand what America is all about,” he said.

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