The stated goal of the new format for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) naturalization exam is to make it more meaningful and less focused on trivial information.
For example, being able to demonstrate knowledge of voting rights and English language will now have more emphasis than which State was admitted as the 49th State, the colors of the American flag or who wrote the Star Spangled Banner.
The pilot program will continue through 2007. More cities may be added, but the new format should remain voluntary until 2008, when it should have been finalized and will become mandatory for all applicants.
The new exam will be given to volunteers beginning this winter in Albany, N.Y.; Boston; Charleston, S.C.; Denver; El Paso, Texas; Kansas City, Mo.; Miami; San Antonio; Tucson, Ariz.; and Yakima, Wash.
The current test is heavy on historical facts, including non-critical questions such as the name of the form used to apply for citizenship. The new exam will ask about the Bill of Rights and the meaning of democracy.
"The idea is not to toss up roadblocks, it's to make sure people who apply for citizenship and want to become citizens understand and adhere to the values we have as a society, the values that are part of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights," said Shawn Saucier, spokesman for the Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The current exam doesn't guarantee knowledge of those values, Saucier said. A person may know which state was the 49th to be added to the union, for example, but not understand voting rights, he said.
The portion of the citizenship exam used to test basic English reading and writing skills also will be changed to include civic vocabulary words, Saucier said.
So, what will it look like?
Officials will test 125 new questions on 5,000 people, eventually narrowing the group of questions down to 100, the same number that can be asked on the current exam. To pass, immigrants must correctly answer six of 10 questions given. If they fail during the trial period for the new format, they will be given the option of taking the old test.
The general idea of the test will not change. There will be 100 questions that a potential U.S. citizen might be asked, but during their examination only ten are actually asked. It will remain an oral test, requiring participants to speak their answers clearly in English.
The questions and answers will be publicly available and are expected to draw on concepts in the nation's founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
The changes could make the exam more difficult for some people, said America Calderon, the program manager at the Central Resource Center, a Washington, D.C., organization that offers citizenship and other programs to Latino immigrants. She guessed it also could push more people into formal classes, instead of trying to learn the information on their own.
All U.S. citizens - not just new ones - could brush up on their civic knowledge, said Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that supports the assimilation of immigrants.
The USCIS is expected to call for a substantial hike in the $400 citizenship application fees.
More details of the changes are expected to announced publically on 29 November.
Historians with the USCIS explain that one of the goals of the test throughout American history has been to try to determine whether a potential citizen feels "attachment" to their new country. Previously that has been interpreted as demonstrating knowledge of the country. The purchase of war bonds and participation in wartime recycling have also been seen as proof of attachment in the past.
Canada offers a test similar to the current U.S. one, and Australia is currently debating the implementation of their own citizenship test - reportedly with at least one question regarding the sport of cricket.
Other Western nations are also requiring tests or are in the planning stage. The Netherlands shows a video featuring gay men and beach-going women to ensure that newcomers will be comfortable with the country's liberal social mores.
The changes in the US bring the test closer to the notion sweeping Europe that gaining citizenship requires subscribing to a set of shared values.
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