How The U.S. Naturalization Test Fails Itself: A Perspective From An Education Assessment point of View
Arizona just became the first state to adopt the U.S. Naturalization Civics test for high school completion, and other states are quickly following. Here's why the test fails.
Before deciding my opinion (as a U.S. citizen and Michigan resident) whether this test should be required here, I assessed the test itself. The test has two major flaws: 1) The test has confusing instructions with often arbitrary answers; 2) the test is subjective, leaving test-takers vulnerable to discrimination.
Instructions for the test are confusing and result in arbitrarily incorrect answers. The test prompts: “As you study for the test, make sure that you know the most current answers to these questions. Answer these questions with the name of the official who is serving at the time of your eligibility interview with USCIS.” For example, an acceptable answer to “What is the name of the Vice President of the United States now?” (Q.29) includes Joe Biden, the current Vice President. But other questions do not follow the format. “If the President can no longer serve, who becomes President?” (Q.30) Here, the correct answer listed is NOT “the name of the official who is serving at the time,” but instead lists the more general form “the Vice President.” Another example with the current Vice President question (Q.29) is that “Joe Biden” and ”Joseph R. Biden, Jr.” are acceptable answers, but “Joe R. Biden” is not an acceptable answer. This type of nuance happens repeatedly throughout the test.
Those conflicting instructions and confusing answers are alarming because the test is administered by a person, orally, which opens the door to discrimination. The instructions state, “The civics test is an oral test … The USCIS Officer will not accept an incorrect answer. Although USCIS is aware that there may be additional correct answers to the 100 civics questions, applicants are encouraged to respond to the civics questions using the answers provided below.” For the vice president question, would “Joe R. Biden” be accepted? This is unclear; the judgement of correctness is subjective, decided by the test-administering officer. That leaves test-takers at the mercy of the test administrators, opening the door for implicit bias and discrimination to decide who ultimately passes.
How would I do on the test? I used a program to randomly generate 10 numbers between 1 and 100 and gave myself the test. Try it yourself. I would have passed if I could be sure that Q.2 (“What does the Constitution do?”) would accept “established powers of the federal government.” To be fair, if I needed to take the test officially, I would study beforehand. But even then, if I were assigned an officer who was in a bad mood today, or if that officer just didn’t like my look, name, accent, makeup, clothes, or tone of voice, I would not be assured a fair shot.
The Bigger Picture
Besides these social issues, a more general complaint from an educational assessment point of view is that the test assesses rote memorization of simple facts, not more general concepts and critical thinking which are more important for citizenship. I’d rather someone be able to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper stating their opinion on federal rights pertaining to marriage than recite the number of voting members in the House of Representatives (Q.21) or list the current Supreme Court Chief justice (Q.40).
Before deciding whether to adopt the test as part of high school completion requirements, the test needs to do its homework, including open commentary and review by assessment experts, similar to how other education initiatives (Common Core, NGSS) are organized. Sorry, U.S. Naturalization Test, you failed this one.
For more, check out the official test. Some of my minor complaints:
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