Questioning the U.S. Citizenship Test

More than 400,000 immigrants take the test to become U.S. citizens each year, and critics are split on whether the test is too difficult or too easy. Solomon Skolnick, author of The Great American Citizenship Quiz, talks about whether the test asks the right questions — or even gives the right answers — about American citizenship.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand and this is DAY TO DAY.

At special July Fourth ceremonies this week, more than 15,000 people will raise their right hands and take the oath of allegiance to become US citizens. They'll do that after they pass a citizenship test. We asked Solomon Skolnick, he's the author of "The Great American Citizenship Quiz," what kind of questions does one have to answer to become an American.?

Mr. SOLOMON SKOLNICK (Author, "The Great American Citizenship Quiz"): What is the Fourth of July? What is the date of Independence Day? When was the Declaration of Independence adopted? All those questions around the same issue. Who was Abraham Lincoln? And there are six different answers you could give and be correct. What do the stars on the flag mean? How many stars are there? How many stars and stripes are there? What do the stripes mean? What's the 49th state in the Union? What's the 50th state in the Union? How many states are in the Union? I mean, things that are all very, very straightforward on the surface and the answers that the government is looking for, at least in terms of studying for the exam, are the straightforward responses.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: On the boats and on the planes, they're coming to America...

BRAND: The test varies by region, but it typically has a hundred questions. Solomon Skolnick took it and he got a hundred out of a hundred, but he's quick to note that this isn't a function of how smart he is.

Mr. SKOLNICK: It is all about rote studying. I mean, if you simply want to get the correct answer to the individual questions, they're not trying to trick you and get you to say Abraham Lincoln was the first president of the United States. It's slightly more difficult to pass your driver's test.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: ...they're coming to America...

BRAND: Easier to pass than a driver's test? Well, even an animated character could pass it. Here's a clip from "The Simpsons" where the Indian character Apu takes the test.

(Soundbite from "The Simpsons")

Mr. HARRY SHEARER: (As Exam Procter) All right, here's your last question: What was the cause of the Civil War?

Mr. HANK AZARIA: (As Apu) Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between abolitionists and anti-abolitionists, economic factors, both domestic and international, played a significant...

Mr. SHEARER: (As Exam Procter) Hey, Mate.

Mr. AZARIA: (As Apu) Yeah.

Mr. SHEARER: (As Exam Procter) Just say slavery.

Mr. AZARIA: (As Apu) Slavery it is, sir. Yes, I am a citizen!

Mr. SKOLNICK: The answers are not wrong. There are lots of shades of gray and a lot of them don't mean a whole lot taken in their simple response.

BRAND: Skolnick argues that study guides and the test itself often oversimplify complicated issues in American history and so answering the question correctly can mean giving an incomplete response.

Mr. SKOLNICK: What is the Emancipation Proclamation? Well, the answer given on the Web site is `the document that freed the slaves.' Did it free slaves in the South? No, it didn't have any effect on those people because they were no longer thinking they were part of the government. It did, however, let slavery remain in the loyal border states. So from that point of view, you could see it as gray. Nothing is out-and-out wrong.

BRAND: Just like some of the answers on the test, Skolnick says statistics about how people do on it are also incomplete.

Mr. SKOLNICK: The only success and failure rate that I've been able to find is one provided by the government itself that says within those regions that will give you the information, that 5 to 10 percent of the people fail. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy in several directions. You don't go to take the test unless you think you can pass it, unless you're about to be sent out of the country. And since only those regions that want to report have reported, it's yet a smaller sample.

BRAND: Despite the reported high rate of success, pro-naturalization groups say the current test is too difficult. Well, whether the questions are easy or difficult to prospective citizens is debatable, but Solomon Skolnick thinks there's one question the US government should be asking itself.

Mr. SKOLNICK: How do you get a sense of a person's intentions in becoming a citizen and what kind of citizen will they be when you can really study the answers and they encourage you to do so?

BRAND: But designing an exam that can measure someone's motives for becoming a citizen could prove impossible. Until then, the government is satisfied that new citizens learn George Washington is the first president and Hawaii the 50th state.

DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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