New Citizenship Test Gets Dry Run

The federal government began pilot-testing the new citizenship test this week. The test is designed to be more meaningful, but some think it is too hard. A visits to an adult education class finds prospective citizens preparing for the big day.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of the last hurdles to becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen is changing. It's an oral citizenship test. And last fall, the government released new questions. Yesterday, immigrants in eight of 10 pilot cities began taking that new test.

NPR's Ted Robins reports from Tucson.

TED ROBINS: The new test is supposed to be more meaningful, to make people think about concepts like state's rights - not just memorize fact like the colors on the flag.

Mr. LENNY SCHWARTZ(ph) (Instructor): How many branches of government are there?

ROBINS: Less than two weeks ago, Lenny Schwartz was helping his 16 PEMA(ph) College adult education students cram for the new test.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Can I have your attention please? If the only place you study is here in class, you're not going to pass the test.

ROBINS: You have to take it home, he told them, but he didn't have to tell them to take it to heart. Enrique Balmaceda(ph), for instance, has been waiting five years for the chance to become a citizen, ever since he got his green card and moved here from Hermosillo, Mexico. His reason? The same as every immigrant.

Mr. ENRIQUE BALMACEDA: To me, like, get a better life here in the United States, you know, basically for me and my family.

ROBINS: So yesterday he sat in a small room across the table from Officer Jaime Islas(ph) at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service Center in Tucson. Islas asked 10 questions randomly chosen from 140 Balmaceda had studied. He had to answer at least six correctly.

Officer JAIME ISLAS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service Center): Name one problem that led to the Civil War.

Mr. BALMACEDA: That's slavery.

Officer ISLAS: Okay. What are inalienable rights?

Mr. BALMCEDA: Those are rights that people is born with.

Officer ISLAS: Okay. Who becomes president if both the president and the vice-president can no longer serve?

Mr. BALMACEDA: The speaker of the House.

Officer ISLAS: Okay. And what is the capital of Arizona?

Mr. BALMACEDA: Phoenix, Arizona.

ROBINS: Balmaceda(ph) answered them all correctly and he was proud, he said, to help evaluate the new test.

Officer ISLAS: And what is an amendment?

Mr. BALMACEDA: It's a change to a constitution.

ROBINS: He also passed his English, reading and writing tests. Next month, at a ceremony, he becomes a citizen. Right now, he's a little shaky but he has a big smile on his face.

Mr. BALMACEDA: I feel pretty good; very, very good. I don't know, I'm still nervous. I feel excited. I feel happy. I don't know.

ROBINS: The new test was voluntary. If Balmaceda had failed it, he would've been given the old test. It's part of a pilot program to get data for revisions. And plenty of people think revisions are needed. Some immigrant rights groups say the new test is too difficult. Others say it's not more meaningful but more trivial. Andrew Stengel(ph) is with the liberal organization People for the American Way in New York.

Mr. ANDREW STENGEL (People for the American Way): If you're redesigning a test in order to encourage people to understand civic values, do that. Don't ask what's the tallest mountain in the United States and leave out the Fourth, Fifth or Sixth Amendment, or the process to register to vote, for that matter.

ROBINS: Marie Sebrechts is with USCIS. She says questions on, say, geography reflect shared knowledge as much as any other subject.

Ms. MARIE SEBRECHTS (USCIS): Yeah, knowing a little bit about the geography of the country, not just New York City or Tucson, not just the government but all the nuances of what makes this country something that stands out for us.

ROBINS: But Sebrechts admits there were poorly worded questions, outright errors, and ambiguity when the questions were first made public.

Ms. SEBRECHTS: Examples would be, we had what is the longest river, and we had the Mississippi; well, in fact the Mississippi is not the longest river. The Missouri is the longest river. The Mississippi is the largest river.

ROBINS: For the record, the Missouri is 200 miles longer than the Mississippi, but USCIS will accept both answers. Revisions will continue after the pilot period; then the new test is scheduled to become standard next year.

Ted Robins, NPR News, Tucson.

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Correction Feb. 16, 2007

In some broadcast versions of this story, the spokesman for People for the American Way was misidentified. He should have been identified as Andrew Stengel.

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