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Giving the grade to the Naturalization Exam


Published December 13, 2006 at 5:00 a.m.

Moses Bol Tong has a favorite question on the U.S. Naturalization Exam. When asked about Patrick Henry, he pumps the air with his fist and declaims with a flourish, "Give me liberty or give me death!"

Like many of the so-called "Lost Boys of Sudan," Tong, now 26, had an arduous and heartbreaking journey to the United States. And before he could become a citizen, as he did a few weeks ago, he had to overcome yet another hurdle: the test.

For someone still learning a new language - never mind American history - that is no small feat. In order to pass the Naturalization Exam, Tong had to learn the basics, such as the colors of the flag, the meaning of July 4th and the name of the president. But there were also questions that some native-born Americans might find challenging, such as: In what year was the Constitution written? How many times may a senator be re-elected? Where does freedom of speech come from?

Thanks to his diligent preparation, Tong ended up with a perfect score. Congratulate him for this, and his smile gets a little brighter, his posture a little straighter. In Dinka-accented English, he sounds every bit the patriot when talking about his new country.

If preparing for the Naturalization Exam was a struggle for Tong and other immigrants this year, next year's test may prove to be even harder. Earlier this month, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, formerly the Immigration & Naturalization Service) announced a pilot program for 2007 introducing a revised exam. The change has sparked controversy. Ali Noorani, of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, put it this way: "The administration is putting up [another] wall to citizenship for immigrants between a longer application process, higher fees and what may very well be a more difficult test."

The famous Emma Lazarus poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty asks the world for its tired and its poor. But immigrants hoping to pass the naturalization test need to find the energy to bone up on civics and English - and still keep their day job.

Fortunately for Tong, he's a hard worker. Since immigrating to the United States, he has worked at Wal-Mart, and is now employed in food services at St. Michael's College. At the same time, he's been taking English Language Learner classes at the Vermont Adult Learning Center in Colchester.

Beth Hart, the tutor who helped Tong prepare for the Naturalization Exam, has her doubts about it. "Most of us don't know the answers to many of these questions!" she says. And that's on the old test.

Hart is a recently retired professor from the University of Vermont College of Medicine who now volunteers at the Learning Center. To test her theory that most of the civics questions would stump native-born Americans, she asked 40 students at a local college to try their hand at them - without first reviewing the special study materials citizenship applicants use to prepare for the test. On average, the native-born Americans got about half the answers wrong. Given these results, Hart wonders if we aren't asking too much of immigrants.

The new exam asks for deeper knowledge, and encourages a more meaningful look at American culture and institutions. "We want them to study and look at this information not toward the eye of memorizing it for a trivia exam," suggests USCIS spokesman Shawn Saucier.

In some cases, the new questions are more sophisticated, asking not just "what" but "why." And many of the cause-and-effect questions have more than one correct answer (see sidebar).

Will those more thoughtful questions be harder to answer? America Calderon, the program manager at the Central Resource Center, a Washington, D.C., organization that helps Latino immigrants, told CNN she thinks so. "It's more difficult because the typical immigrant is trying to struggle with English and trying to learn the 100 questions right now," she says.

Nevertheless, the test is an important initiation for wannabe citizens, and no one is suggesting it shouldn't be challenging. And as a recent piece on National Public Radio suggested, some native-born Americans favor making the Naturalization Exam harder - even if they can't answer all the questions themselves.

Derk Pereboom, 49, is a UVM philosophy professor who was born in the Netherlands, grew up in Canada and became a U.S. citizen in September. He believes having a test encourages candidates to become "effective participants in U.S. democracy." The new exam's questions about citizens' roles are important, he says. "You really have to know about the history of the country you're joining."

Though Pereboom concedes some questions on the new exam appear harder, he doesn't believe they're too hard. The USCIS examiner will still ask 10 questions from a pool of 100 that are available in study-guide form, he points out. The 60-percent score required to pass is reasonable as well, Pereboom suggests. Statistics support this: Out of the estimated 800,000 annual exam candidates, 84 percent pass the history and civics section of the test on their first try; 95 percent pass the second time around.

Pereboom notes, too, that next year's test-takers will be given the current version if they don't pass the work-in-progress pilot exam, which will be refined for an official launch in 2008. Still, if the success rate drops, he suggests, the new exam should be revisited.

The USCIS seems to agree. "The idea is not to toss up roadblocks," says spokesman Saucier. "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."


Even critics might agree that the new Naturalization Exam includes questions that seem more in step with current notions of the American experience. In addition to familiarity with Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, test-takers will need at least a cursory knowledge of Native Americans, Susan B. Anthony, slavery and the current minimum wage. The old exam asks who Martin Luther King Jr. was; the new one asks what his dream was. There are still obligatory checks on holidays, functionaries and institutions, but the new test also asks about the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizens and residents. One question even proposes joining a community group, telling your opinion to an elected official, and writing to a newspaper as answers to how one can participate in American democracy. Voting, of course, is also a correct answer.

And never mind questions about the colors of the flag - the new exam gets at what makes America beautiful. The Appalachians, the Mississippi, the Grand Canyon and Puerto Rico all crop up in the geography questions. The new version also takes into account the larger world, with references to Mexico, Canada and the role of the United Nations.

The 2007 Naturalization Exam will differ, too, with regard to English proficiency. Since 1986, the USCIS examiner has asked candidates to read and write sentences such as: She needs to buy some new clothes. He came to live with his brother. He has a very big dog. He wanted to find a job. Beginning next year, candidates will prove their English fluency by reading and writing sentences related to civics. Here again, some immigrant advocates worry that having to explain broad ideas in a new language will be too difficult.

Tutor Beth Hart agrees that concepts such as the rule of law and freedom of religion are important to understand, and that new citizens need to understand their rights and responsibilities. But putting herself in the place of an immigrant with imperfect English, Hart wonders about some questions on the new exam. Asking a citizenship candidate about The Federalist Papers and the Senate Majority Leader, she suggests, are examples of "overkill."

Despite the current debate, though, the new civics questions aren't all that different from the old ones - by Hart's count, 91 of them are the same. That's given her another beef: the $6.5 million spent to create the "new-and-improved" test. "Just think of it - those six or seven good questions will cost U.S. taxpayers about $1 million each," she exclaims. "Wow!"


Testing, Testing

Questions from old exam:

1. Who elects the President of the United States?

2. What are the colors of our flag?

3. How many stripes are there on the flag?

4. What color are the stripes?

5. What are the 49th and 50th states of the Union?

Questions from new exam:

1. Why did the colonists fight the British?

2. Name one problem that led to the Civil War.

3. When is the last day you can send in federal income tax forms?

4. What major event happened on September 11, 2001, in the United States?

5. Name one of the major American Indian tribes in the United States.

Questions on the old and new exam (exact wording may vary):

1. Why do we have 13 stripes on the flag?

2. When do we celebrate Independence Day?

3. When was the Constitution drafted?

4. Who is the Chief Justice of the United States?

5. Who becomes President if both the President and the Vice President can no longer serve?

Answers below.


1. The Electoral College.

2. Red, white and blue.

3. 13.

4. Red

5. Hawaii & Alaska.


1. They had to pay high taxes but did not have any say about it [taxation without representation]; the British army stayed in their houses [boarding, quartering]; the British denied the colonists self-government.

2. Slavery; economic reasons; states' rights.

3. April 15.

4. Terrorists attacked the United States.

5. Cherokee, Seminoles, Creek, Choctaw, Arawak, Iroquois, Shawnee . . . [Adjudicators are supplied with a complete list.]


1. Because there were 13 original colonies; because the stripes represent the original colonies.

2. July 4.

3. 1787.

4. John Roberts.

5. The Speaker of the House of Representatives.