Was anyone surprised last year when over 1,000 American survey respondents put in a pathetic performance answering questions from the U.S. citizenship exam, such as what the three branches of the U.S. government are and which party controls the House and the Senate?
Asking people questions from the citizenship exam has long been every immigration lawyer’s favorite party game. Some of the questions are guaranteed to stump a crowd, especially back in the days when applicants had to name all 13 original colonies.
(After a test revision a few years back, this was reduced to three.)
The state of Arizona’s reported response to this “crisis,” however — passing a law mandating that wannabe high school graduates pass the U.S. citizenship test before they can receive their diplomas — seems misguided. And we can probably add it to the list of instances when teachers are forced to spend time on exam prep that could have gone to a far more meaningful activity.
Here’s the thing: The U.S. citizenship exam is weird. It was created for a limited and unusual purpose. The U.S. government can’t, or at least will never devote the resources to, give every green card holder who wants to become a citizen a complete course in U.S. history, government, and society. Instead, it asks applicants to study a set list of 100 questions, and to regurgitate the answers. (Or, at least, successfully answer six out of ten of them, with the questions chosen by the examiner during the citizenship interview. That’s different than what Arizona students will face — they have to get 60 out of the whole 100 right.)
Take a look at the list: It contains disjointed questions like, “When is the last day you can send in federal income tax forms?,” “What is one responsibility that is only for U.S. citizens?,” “What did Susan B. Anthony do?,” and “Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?”
You could have a Ph.D. in U.S. history and having trouble answering some of them, because you actually have to get the wording right. For example, there’s a question, “What did Martin Luther King, Jr., do?” Last I looked, he did a number of important things — whole college courses are devoted to him alone. But there are only two possible answers that will be recognized as correct: He either “fought for civil rights” or “worked for equality for all Americans.”
I’d much rather know that Arizona students (and those in any other states that might be tempted to follow Arizona’s lead) had participated in some in-depth discussion of the topics so briefly touched on in the citizenship exam, such as the civil rights movement, the structure of the U.S. political system, and so on, than that they can pass the exam itself. Let’s leave the latter for party games, and for the immigrants in the unusual situation of having to prove their knowledge of the U.S. all in one sitting.