Latest News

U.S. unveils new citizenship test questions

WASHINGTON — Can you name one of the American forefathers who wrote the Federalist Papers? Or cite the number of amendments to the Constitution?

Those are among the questions on a redesigned citizenship test unveiled Thursday after seven years of laborious research and an expenditure of $6.5 million. If you answered James Madison, Alexander Hamilton or John Jay to the first question and 27 to the second you might be on your way to a passing score.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, will begin conducting the new tests in October 2008. The revisions, USCIS Director Emilio Gonzalez said, will encourage prospective citizens to have a better understanding of the "basic civic values that unite us as Americans."

More than 6,000 applicants took a pilot version of the test over the past four months at 10 sites across the country. After making final revisions, the USCIS came up with 100 questions that cover the framework of government and decades of history from the American Revolution through the march for civil rights.

Candidates must correctly answer six of 10 questions drawn from the list when they take their tests before one of 1,600 immigration officers known as adjudicators. They also must be able to converse and write in English.

The questions cover much of the same material that's been drilled into the heads of students since the dawn of the republic more than two centuries ago. The average American probably would know that the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776, and that George Washington was the first president.

But even college graduates might not be able to ace all the answers without brushing up on basic civics. Question 14, for example, asks: What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful (checks and balances or separation of powers). And presumably, not everyone automatically knows that there are 435 members of the House of Representatives.

The questions and answers, which are available online at for applicants to study, replace the current batch of 96 questions, which critics had complained were irrelevant or too simplistic in many cases. For example, seven questions about the colors, stars and stripes on the American flag were compressed into a single question: "Why does the flag have 13 stripes?"

One now-deleted question on the pilot test — "Who is the attorney general now?" — was overtaken by events after Alberto Gonzales stepped down in controversy. President Bush nominated Michael Mukasey to the post, but the Senate hasn't yet confirmed him.

USCIS officials unveiled a 142-question pilot test last December, then made revisions after testing volunteers and getting feedback from experts in the immigration community. Gema Santos, an educator with Miami-Dade County Public Schools who helps elderly immigrants prepare for citizenship tests, worked closely with the agency to help shape the final test.

Alfonso Aguilar, the chief of the office of citizenship for USCIS, said 6,254 applicants had passed the pilot test, a 92.4 percent success rate. The test sites included Miami, El Paso and San Antonio, Texas, Kansas City, Mo., Charleston, S.C., and Yakima, Wash.

With the new test in place, the agency will begin a yearlong effort to train personnel and conduct outreach sessions at immigration centers where prospective applicants learn English and prepare for the exam. The first training session is scheduled for Oct. 26 in Miami, Aguilar said.

Nearly 1 million legalized immigrants apply for citizenship each year, and about 700,000 became citizens in 2006. Among other things, applicants must be legal permanent residents with so-called green cards for at least five years, abide by the law and demonstrate an ability to read, write, speak and understand basic English. The spouses of U.S. citizens can be eligible for citizenship in three years.

Santos, who was at the USCIS news conference to unveil the new test, said 150 applicants had taken the pilot test at the multi-service center where she helps immigrants reach their dream of becoming American citizens. The new test, she said, is a significant improvement over the old one, which she said put too much emphasis on memorizing facts and figures instead of addressing the broad principles of what it means to be a citizen.

In studying for the new test, she said, "they learn how it affects them in real life. They don't have to read the Federalist Papers to know how they relate to the Constitution."


See the 100 test questions.

Related stories from McClatchy DC