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New Citizens Will Need Deeper Knowledge For Naturalization

By Holli Chmela


The federal government rolled out a new citizenship test Thursday to replace an exam that critics say has encouraged prospective Americans to simply 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.

The result is 144 questions on civics and history. (All the questions are available on the agency’s Web site,

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, N.Y.; Boston; Charleston, S.C.; Denver; El Paso, Texas; Kansas City, Mo; Miami; San Antonio; Tucson, Ariz.; 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.”