WASHINGTON -- Passing the test to become a U.S. citizen will soon require more than knowing the number of states or Supreme Court justices. Instead of memorizing facts and details about American government and history, new immigrants will be assessed on their grasp of the nation's ideals.
Unveiling the first major change in the citizenship examination in 20 years, the federal government said yesterday that applicants for citizenship will soon be asked to explain phrases including "we the people" and "inalienable rights."
Instead of knowing how many branches make up the U.S. government, they will have to explain why there is more than one.
The shift in emphasis follows years of complaints that the exam tested trivia rather than prompting understanding of the nation's shared identity, and that it was administered unfairly, with applicants in some cities being given much harder tests than those elsewhere.
"The goal is to make it more meaningful," said Emilio Gonzalez, director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees citizenship issues. "When you raise your hand and swear allegiance to the United States, you ought to know what you're swearing allegiance to."
The government listed 144 draft questions that might appear on the new test. It plans to test them in pilot programs in 10 cities and then winnow the list to 100 questions. Applicants will be given 10 of the questions as part of the exam. They will have to correctly answer six and meet other requirements for citizenship.
Some conservative groups hailed the new questions as an improvement, but immigration groups say some questions in the pilot test are tougher and might raise hurdles to citizenship.
"Some of the questions are just off the wall," said Fred Tsao, policy director at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Chicago. "Other questions I found unusual. And the range of information that's being asked for is much broader."
One "odd" question, Tsao said, asks applicants to specify the federal minimum wage (answer: $5.15).
"Someone who came in from India as a software engineer isn't necessarily going to know what the minimum wage is," Tsao said.
Legal permanent residents, those with "green cards," can take the citizenship test after five years in the United States, three years if they are married to an American or are serving in the military. Over a two- to four-month test period, Citizenship and Immigration Services hopes to attract 5,000 of them to volunteer for the pilot.
The new tests will start in January and will be administered in Albany, N.Y.; Boston; Charleston, S.C.; Denver; El Paso and San Antonio, Texas; Miami; Tucson, Ariz.; and Yakima, Wash.
It will still be broken into three parts, including two English proficiency sections.
Changes are mostly in the revamped civics section, which will include new questions and vocabulary developed with the help of test development experts and teachers of English as a second language.
The agency will wait a year after the pilot to begin administering the new exam so that groups will have time to prepare study materials. Agency officials said the pilot is meant to refine the test. It took six years to develop and cost about $6.5 million.
"If the majority of people are failing, that probably suggests that some questions are not fair and too difficult," said Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the agency's Office of Citizenship. "We will take out questions that are just too difficult."
One major change will be the agency's effort to create national standards. Currently, adjudicators can ask questions in any order or at any level of difficulty they choose.
"Someone in L.A. and Chicago could have very different experiences," Tsao said. "The history questions were pretty well standard. But English testing could vary. Someone in L.A. could end up being asked to write the sentence 'I drive to work every day' or be asked to read and interpret the Oath of Allegiance."
Spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan, said the citizenship agency will give each question a value for level of difficulty as one step toward making sure that all applicants face similar challenges.
"Everyone will get an even balance," Rhatigan said.
Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.
Sample questions to be tested in 10 cities on volunteers seeking U.S. citizenship:
Q: Why do we have three branches of government?
A: So no branch is too powerful.
Q: Name two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy.
A: They can vote, call senators or representatives, run for public office, write a letter to a newspaper, join a political party or other possible answers.
Q: Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream for America. What was his dream?
A: Equality for all Americans, civil rights for all or other possible answers.
Q: Name one important idea found in the Declaration of Independence.
A: All people are created equal, the power of government comes from the people, the people can change their government if it hurts their natural rights or other possible answers.
[Source: Citizenship and Immigration Services.]