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For would-be citizens, a new test is in the offing

In one year, the U.S. immigration agency will introduce a new citizenship test that goes beyond facts and figures to probe applicants’ understanding of U.S. democracy. By Dunia Elvir and Elisa Ross of Telemundo and Alex Johnson of
/ Source: Telemundo and

For Veronica de Castillo, it is crunch time.

De Castillo is applying for naturalization, and she has been studying for the civics test that is one of the main hurdles would-be new citizens must face.

But for de Castillo and thousands of other immigrants, the rules are changing in the middle of the game. In one year, the U.S. immigration agency will administer a new test, one that goes beyond the facts and figures that applicants knew to memorize (How many branches are there in the United States government?) to probe their understanding of fundamental principles of U.S. democracy (What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?).

U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Services, or USCIS, published the 100 questions of the new test this week, giving prospective new citizens — along with the hundreds of local community-based groups that work with them — a year to prepare. Test takers will be asked only 10 of the 100 questions. To pass, they will have to answer six correctly. 

What is now a basic U.S. history quiz will morph into a fairly advanced civics exam.

“It worries me because the majority of U.S. Hispanics have trouble with English. I think it was easier before, but we’ll do our best,” de Castillo said.

Immigration services Director Emilio Gonzalez said applicants should not worry. Ninety-two percent of test takers passed during a trial run, he said, a statistically significant improvement over the 84 percent to 85 percent who pass the current test on their first attempt.

“It is an examination that requires study, but it is also an examination that someone who studies enough is going to pass without any problem,” Gonzalez said.

Advocates raise cautions
But the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials criticized the federal agency for not allowing immigrant advocacy groups to weigh in on the final choices, although they were involved in earlier stages of the pilot program.

“We are disappointed that the agency did not provide those groups with detailed information about the results of the pilot or a meaningful opportunity to comment on the very final version of the exam questions,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the association's Educational Fund.

Vargas also questioned whether the new test could be fairly administered, noting that many of the questions have multiple acceptable answers, meaning examiners must make subjective judgments about whether an applicant got it right.

“The USCIS must be very careful to ensure that its examiners treat applicants fairly when determining whether they have correctly answered questions on the new test,” he said.

Test a product of yearlong review
The test was drawn up earlier this year with the help of more than 6,000 applicants for citizenship who volunteered to take a pilot version. History and government scholars analyzed the results.

Meanwhile, teachers of English as a second language reviewed the responses to make sure applicants with, at best, “high-beginning” levels of fluency in English could understand the questions.

The main objective was to make sure applicants could demonstrate “critical thinking about government or history.” But immigration officials made it clear that they also wanted to promote patriotism by helping prospective citizens “better understand and relate to our shared history,” according to written guidelines for drafting the 100 questions.

“Our idea is to make this a test which is more relevant, which instills a greater sense of civic pride,” Gonzalez told NBC News when the agency undertook the project late last year.

New emphasis for examination
To that end, the new test includes numerous questions that are designed more to instruct than to challenge. For example, it poses questions about U.S. geography, because “many teachers requested that we add geography questions to encourage applicants to learn something about the land where they live,” the agency said.

The agency also added several questions to help applicants learn more about their rights and responsibilities as citizens. Question 55 asks, “What are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy?”

The answers, provided in full on the agency's Web site for applicants to study ahead of time:

  • vote
  • join a political party
  • help with a campaign
  • join a civic group
  • join a community group
  • give an elected official your opinion on an issue
  • call senators and representatives
  • publicly support or oppose an issue or policy
  • run for office
  • write to a newspaper

“We have to acknowledge that many of these concepts are more relevant to immigrants,” said Alfonso Aguilar, chief of agency's Office of Citizenship. “They come to this nation precisely for these concepts of religious freedom, freedom of expression.”

The agency acknowledged that no test could measure an individual’s allegiance to the United States. But it said in its statement that by helping applicants demonstrate an understanding of basic civic principles, the new test will help them “understand and attach themselves to those principles.”