What Were the Drafters of the New U.S. Citizenship Exam Thinking?

What Were the Drafters of the New U.S. Citizenship Exam Thinking?

As a thought experiment, imagine what types of questions you would put on the civics exam that every immigrant who hopes to become a U.S. citizen must pass. Details of early U.S. history, perhaps? An introduction to America’s foundational or contemporary economic and social philosophy? A reminder of when to pay federal income taxes?

The exam that has been in use for years contained a smattering of all of the above on its list of 100 possible questions. Starting in December of 2020, however, the U.S. government will start using a revised and substantially longer version of the exam, weighing in at 128 questions.

This revision presented an opportunity to rethink the old, add important new material, and bring cohesiveness to the project of educating new Americans. Whether it actually achieved any of that depends on your interests. Fans of war history will be very happy.

In fact, I wonder whether the drafting committee’s members included a history buff, possibly someone who spends weekends at Civil War reenactments. How else to explain the addition of not one, but two new questions focused on battles, including:

The American Revolution had many important events. Name one.

Acceptable answers include the Battle of Bunker Hill, Declaration of Independence, Washington Crossing the Delaware (Battle of Trenton), Battle of Saratoga, Valley Forge (Encampment), and Battle of Yorktown.

Be sure to test your U.S. citizen friends on these!

The Civil War had many important events. Name one.

Acceptable answers include the Battle of Fort Sumter, Emancipation Proclamation, Battle of) Vicksburg, Battle of Gettysburg, Sherman’s March, Surrender at Appomattox, Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg, and Lincoln’s assassination.

The old exam already had ten questions that discussed war. The new one has 15, including ones about why the United States entered World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and so on.

Perhaps there was also a female committee member, whose primary contribution was to adjust the question of “What did Susan B. Anthony do?” to one asking, “Name one leader of the women’s rights movement in the 1800s.” Answers can include Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone. There are no questions concerning what these women actually did, however.

This hypothetical committee member also added a question on when women got the right to vote. Two new questions! Go women!

Let’s move on to the newly added questions about racial justice and social equality. Oh, there aren’t any. Perhaps there wasn’t room, after the critical task of making immigrants memorize lists of long-ago battles.

As with the previous exam, the list of possible questions contains one asking what Martin Luther King, Jr. did. And another asking about what the civil rights movement is—or was. The newly worded question puts it squarely in the past tense: “What did the civil rights movement do?” (Answer: Fought to end racial discrimination.) No mention of current struggles.

I’m seeing missed opportunities here. And unsolved mysteries, such as why the committee thought it necessary to add: “Why is the Electoral College important?” The acceptable answers include, “It decides who is elected president” and “It provides a compromise between the popular election of the president and congressional selection.” Let’s hope that clears it up for anyone curious.

Here’s one last mystery: The new exam answers add the words “social contract” twice, and “natural rights” once. It says that “social contract” is both an important idea from the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution and an example of what “We the People” means. Yet that term appears in neither of these documents. The same goes for “natural rights,” also given as an example of ideas from our founding documents.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government hasn’t yet provided study materials, so we don’t have any concrete insights into why these concepts are suddenly important. I’m certainly curious.

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