New citizenship exam emphasizes principles
Can you name one of the country’s longest rivers? A Native American tribe? What makes Benjamin Franklin famous? Immigrants aspiring to become U.S. citizens will be expected to answer these and other questions on a new naturalization exam that officials hope will deepen their understanding of civics and history and discourage rote memorization of facts and figures.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has been working on the test redesign for more than two years and administered a pilot version to more than 6,000 volunteer applicants. On Thursday, the agency released the final set of 100 test questions that immigrants should study to prepare for the exam, which will be given in their interview to become U.S. citizens starting in October 2008. The goal of the redesign is to encourage a deeper understanding of U.S. government and an attachment the country and its principles. “Citizenship is not only a benefit but it’s also an identity,” said Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the agency's office of citizenship.
I am delighted at these changes, and let me tell you why. When I took the citizenship exam back in the late 80's I answered (among others) the following question: "Which state has the only unicameral legislature?" Wow. Did knowing that make me any more qualified to become an American than anyone who didn't know the answer? Any native-born Americans out there who don't know the answer to that one? Do you feel, as a result, that you should turn in your passport? I remember thinking at the time that I was undergoing the most ridiculous process if that was the sum total of all I was expected to know about America in order to join the team. I also answered "Name the Secretary of State" (James Baker) and "Is he elected or appointed?" (Appointed). She shoots she scores!!! Being a history buff did not hurt in the least. My poor Mum, however, was asked "Name the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army," a tricky two-level question requiring you to know both that the Continental Army was so named during the Revolutionary War, and that George Washington was therefore the leader of same. If you don't know the first part, you can't answer the question asked. Luckily she nailed it, but you can certainly understand how someone might not and yet might still make a fantastic, law-abiding, tax-paying American citizen of the most unimpeachable national loyalty.
So I'm delighted, nay thrilled, to see that the questions will attempt to focus a little more on the meaning of being American and the significance of the Constitution, rather than on what the Senate cafeteria serves on Wednesdays.