Modifications to US Citizenship Test Worry Immigrants with Limited English Proficiency

by Sophia Chen
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US Citizenship Test Changes

As the United States gears up to revamp its citizenship test, immigrants and their advocates express concerns about the potential impact on those with limited English language skills.

The naturalization test, one of the last stages in the protracted journey towards becoming a US citizen, has been under scrutiny since former Republican President Donald Trump’s administration altered it in 2020, making it lengthier and harder to pass. Only a few months later, Democratic President Joe Biden signed an executive order focused on removing obstacles to citizenship. Consequently, the test was reverted back to its earlier version, last revised in 2008.

In December, US officials announced that a refresh of the citizenship test was due after 15 years. The reworked version is expected to be released towards the end of the next year.

The proposed version of the test by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will include a new spoken section to assess English language capabilities. Officers will present images depicting ordinary situations – such as daily activities, weather, or food – and the applicant will be required to describe them verbally.

Currently, an officer gauges the applicant’s speaking skills during the naturalization interview by asking personal questions that the applicant has already answered in the naturalization paperwork.

Immigrants like Heaven Mehreta, who moved from Ethiopia a decade ago, are anxious about these potential changes. She learned English as an adult and found pronunciation challenging. She worries that introducing a new spoken section based on images, as opposed to personal questions, will increase the difficulty of the test for others in similar situations.

Another proposed amendment would transform the civics section on US history and government into a multiple-choice format, rather than the current oral short-answer layout.

In Massachusetts, Bill Bliss, a citizenship textbook author, illustrated in a blog post how the new test could require a broader base of knowledge.

Lynne Weintraub, a citizenship coordinator at Jones Library’s English as a Second Language Center in Massachusetts, believes that the proposed changes to the civics section could make the test more challenging for individuals with limited English literacy skills.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stated that the proposed changes would “reflect current best practices in test design” and would aid in the standardization of the citizenship test.

The agency plans to conduct a nationwide trial of the proposed changes in 2023, welcoming public feedback. An external panel of experts in language acquisition, civics, and test development will then review the trial results and offer recommendations on implementing the proposed changes.

Compared to other Western countries like Germany, Canada, and the UK, the U.S. currently has the easiest citizenship test, according to Sara Goodman, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine.

However, Elizabeth Jacobs, director of regulatory affairs and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, argued that the proposed changes could simplify the test further, which her organization believes is a step in the wrong direction.

While not everyone agrees, it’s clear that the potential changes to the US citizenship test have triggered a debate about the importance of the civics test and the degree of knowledge required for becoming a US citizen.

According to a USCIS report from December, over a million people became U.S. citizens in the fiscal year 2022, one of the highest numbers since 1907. Additionally, the backlog of naturalization applications was reduced by over 60% from the previous year.

Trisha Ahmed, a member of the Big Big News/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative, contributed to this report. Report for America is a non-profit program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover under-reported issues. Follow Trisha Ahmed on Twitter: @TrishaAhmed15

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about US Citizenship Test Changes

What changes are being proposed to the U.S. citizenship test?

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is considering the addition of a new spoken section where the applicant must describe ordinary images verbally. Another suggested change is to switch the civics section to a multiple-choice format, rather than the current oral short-answer layout.

Who has expressed concerns about the proposed changes to the U.S. citizenship test?

Immigrants with limited English language skills and their advocates have voiced worries that these changes might make the test harder for them.

Why is a new speaking section being added to the test?

The new speaking section is being proposed to assess an applicant’s English language skills in a more practical and direct manner.

How will the new proposed changes impact the format of the civics section in the U.S. citizenship test?

The proposed changes will turn the civics section on U.S. history and government into a multiple-choice format, as opposed to the current oral short-answer format.

When are these proposed changes expected to take effect?

The new version of the test, incorporating these changes, is expected to be released towards the end of next year, following a nationwide trial and review period in 2023.

How does the U.S. citizenship test compare to those in other Western countries?

According to a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, the U.S. currently has the easiest citizenship test when compared to other Western countries such as Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

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