Tuesday, December 06, 2005

US citizenship and citizenship tests - WSJ news article

The front page of the Wall Street Journal carries today a fascinating article on the current test for citizenship, here, Tuesday, December 6, 2005. I will pick up on this topic later - the question of civic education and conditions of citizenship, including some understanding and commitment to constitutional government of the US, is one that interests me increasingly. As does the question of whether citizenship should be, or must be, automatic with birth. And finally, the question of dual citizenship and the constitutional requirement of foreign allegiance. In a world in which increasingly elites consider citizenship to be merely a matter of where you pay your taxes, but otherwise a quaint attribute of another quaint concept - sovereignty - "so ... so 19th century," as one of my colleagues put it recently - in favor of floating cosmopolitanism - well, there is this question of what citizenship means, what it's good for, whether you can depend on pure cosmopolitans to fight any wars for a polity, or whether, as Michael Ignatieff once admitted in a gracefully concessionary passage in his book, Blood and Belonging, that cosmopolitans like himself depended for their extraordinary freedoms and their borderless prosperity on the blood of people, soldiers, who were not cosmopolitans and willing to die for a community.

Excerpts from the WSJ article:

Would-Be Citizens Will Face New Test,
If It's Ever Written

Critics Say the Civics Exam Is Trivial and Arbitrary,
But Few Agree on the Fix

December 6, 2005; Page A1

Alfonso Aguilar's job is to write a test that almost everyone can pass. It isn't as easy as it sounds.
Mr. Aguilar heads the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Citizenship, which the Bush administration has charged with rewriting the civics and literacy tests that immigrants must pass to become U.S. citizens.

As it is, 97% of those who take the civics test make it through by answering questions such as "Where is the White House located?" and "How many states are there in the Union?" A similar number -- 95% -- pass the literacy test by reading one English sentence and writing another. Last year, 418,332 people became citizens after passing those two exams.

No one objects to the high pass rate. "What does the nation gain if you fail people out of citizenship?" asks Mr. Aguilar, a former press secretary and a political appointee, who's a U.S. citizen by virtue of his birth in Puerto Rico in 1969.

But almost everyone objects to the test, with immigrant advocates insisting it is arbitrary, scholars saying it is meaningless and both agreeing it is borderline goofy. "Trivia," says John Fonte, an immigration historian at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. Mr. Fonte's grandmother studied a 283-page textbook to prepare for her citizenship interview in 1956.

Mr. Aguilar, while vague on the details of how he plans to change the test, says the new version shouldn't just be a measure of memorization, "something an al Qaeda agent could breeze through." He says it also should "encourage civic learning and patriotism."

With legal and illegal immigrants accounting for one in eight U.S. residents, changing the rules that determine who becomes an American is an emotional and complicated issue, even by Washington standards. The project to develop a new test is already nine years old -- it predated Mr. Aguilar's appointment -- and has at least two years to go.


For how long do we elect members of the House of Representatives?
Who said, "Give me liberty or give me death?"Who becomes president if both the president and the vice president die?
Read answers to these2 and the other 93 possible citizenship questions.

For generations, the citizenship test consisted largely of an interview with an immigration officer. Only in 1986 was the process standardized into a test with a specific format. As Mr. Aguilar tells it, "a couple of immigration officers who were not scholars" tossed together a list of 96 questions that range from the obvious (#13: "Who is the President?") to the obscure (#88: "What's the name of the citizenship-application form?" Answer: N-400).

The Department of Homeland Security, which now oversees immigration, publishes the list of questions. During the test, an examiner picks any 10; a would-be citizen must answer six correctly. To test for English competence, the examiner provides two sentences and asks the test-taker to read one and write another. The examiner can make up sentences or chose from a list of 98 possibilities the government publishes. The list includes "All people want to be free" and "He has a very big dog."

Almost from the beginning, the 1986 test inspired complaints. Immigrant-rights groups charge it is arbitrary and subject to abuse: There is little to prevent an examiner from choosing a tough question such as #72 -- "Name the amendments that guarantee or address voting rights" -- instead of an easy one such as #1 -- "What are the colors of our flag?" (The answer to #72 is the 15th, 19th and 24th.)

Conservative groups fret that the test doesn't promote assimilation by teaching immigrants about American history and the workings of government. "You want a test that makes people think about what it means to be an American," says Matthew Spaulding, who studies immigration policy for the Heritage Foundation, a think tank.

So in 1997, the Clinton administration set up a commission to study the exam, along with other elements of immigration policy. It concluded that the test didn't probe a candidate's "meaningful knowledge" of history and civics. The panel then closed up shop. A string of other government studies followed. They came to the same conclusion and the same end.

In 2001, the Bush administration hired a test-writing company to draft a study guide that could be used to create a new set of civics questions. But immigrant advocates said potential citizens would be baffled by the guide's sophisticated language, such as "inalienable rights." Worse, the guide became tinder in the long-running culture war between liberals and conservatives, who accused each other of ignoring America's failings or discounting its glories. The new questions were never written.

The company also created a literacy exam that asked immigrants to describe in writing what was happening in a picture. During a trial run, failure rates soared.

The test-writing company was dropped and more studies followed before Mr. Aguilar took over the project in April after a stint as press secretary for Latin America and Caribbean affairs at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Mr. Aguilar promises that he will have a plan in 2006, that a team of psychometricians will produce a new test by 2007 and that it will be in use in 2008.

Mr. Aguilar says he is inclined only to "tweak" the old test. For example, instead of asking who wrote the Declaration of Independence -- question #54, answer Thomas Jefferson -- the new test might ask a would-be citizen to name one of its concepts." 'Fundamental rights' would be an answer," Mr. Aguilar suggests. Meanwhile, the literacy test would rein in the examiners' discretion over which questions to ask.

Mr. Aguilar also proposes orientation sessions for immigrants, training for teachers leading citizenship classes and study guides to help immigrants pass. "If you have 98% passing, that's fine with me," he says.

Immigrant groups aren't reassured. With Congress and the White House proposing an overhaul of immigration laws, advocates worry that the U.S. welcome mat could be pulled in. "It's a dangerous time to be tinkering" with the citizenship process, says Michele Waslin, research director of La Raza, a group that advocates for Hispanics on matters such as education and housing.

For all the promises about test-preparation help, Mr. Aguilar's office has only $3.2 million to spend on citizenship programs. The Department of Education budgets another $7 million for civics education for adult immigrants, Mr. Aguilar says. That doesn't go far in a country that counted 34.2 million foreign-born residents last year, including both citizens and noncitizens, legal and illegal.

In Silver Spring, Md., which is 35% foreign-born, Pamela Leith holds a class for immigrants training for the current exam. They hail from El Salvador, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic and pay $70 a semester.

One recent evening, Ms. Leith, a public-school teacher by day, taught a lesson on the three branches of government. Then her students practiced the answer to question #17 on the citizenship test: "What is the Constitution?" "The supreme law of the land," they repeated. When Ms. Leith asked who becomes president if the president dies -- question #16 -- Berte Rosa Saucedo, who works in a laundry, ventured cautiously, "The vice presidente?"

Throughout the 90-minute lesson, 12-year-old Wilber Lopez, who was born in the U.S., stood over his parents, Zuma and Gilberto. He translated Ms. Leith's questions and amplified her answers. Asked why she wants to be a citizen, Mrs. Lopez, who cleans office buildings, was quick with an answer: "Because I want to vote." Besides, she added, Wilber wants to be president.

Write to June Kronholz at june.kronholz@wsj.com3

URL for this article:http://online.wsj.com/article/SB113383422569514749.html

No comments: