Michigan State University Study Suggests the U.S. Citizenship is Unfair and Unreliable

Immigrants who wish to become citizens of the United States must pass an examination administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The test has four parts: three of the parts test the applicant’s proficiency in the English language through speaking, reading, and writing, and a civics test covers the applicant’s knowledge of American history and values. The civics test faces criticism from a study conducted at Michigan State University (MSU), which concluded that it is not a reliable indicator of an applicant’s knowledge, and that the results of the test are subjective enough to appear random in some cases.

The civics test formerly consisted of a series of short-answer questions such as the name of the current U.S. president or the number of stars on the flag. In 2006, the government introduced a new test consisting of ten oral questions, drawn from a total set of 100 questions, that focus on “the principles of American democracy, such as freedom,” rather than basic facts of American history. The test questions cover three broad areas. Questions on “American Government” address American democracy, the system of government, and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. “Integrated Civics” questions look at American geography, symbols, and holidays. The “American History” questions cover the entire span from the Colonial period to the present. Sample questions from each category include:

  • What is the “rule of law”?
  • Why does the flag have 13 stripes?
  • Why did the colonists fight the British?

Applicants must answer six of the ten questions correctly to pass. If an applicant fails any of the four parts of the test, they may be retested within ninety days. A spokesperson for USCIS told the Associated Press that the new civics test helps new citizens “fully incorporate” into American society. She also said that about ninety-three percent of applicants since October 2009 pass the test on their first try.

The MSU study administered two mock citizenship tests to a group of 414 volunteers consisting of both citizens and noncitizens. Of that group, 136 participants failed both tests, and 181 passed both of them. The study’s author says her main concern is for the ninety-seven participants, twenty-three percent of the group, who passed one of the tests and failed the other.

Out of the 100 total questions, the study concluded that seventy-seven were equally difficult for the citizens and noncitizens in the group. Ten questions were easier for citizens to answer, and thirteen questions were easier for noncitizens to answer. An example of one of those thirteen questions offered by the AP was “During the Cold War what was the main concern of the United States?”

This study represents a very small sample, but its findings have led to calls for USCIS to review the test’s reliability. With twenty-three percent of the study participants passing one test and failing another, this could suggest that, for one in four applicants in the real world, whether or not they pass the tests will have less to do with their knowledge and preparation and more to do with what specific version of the test they get.

Michigan immigration visa lawyer Gus Shihab helps people understand and navigate the U.S. immigration system, which includes the constantly-changing politics of our immigration laws. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us through our website or at (800) 625-3404.

Web Resources

Components of the Naturalization Test (PDF file), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

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Nigerian Man Who Settled in Columbus Decades Ago Becomes a Citizen, Immigration Visa Lawyer Blog, February 23, 2012
Design Changes, Meant to Improve Security and Fight Fraud, are Coming for Employment and Citizenship Forms, Immigration Visa Lawyer Blog, November 2, 2011
USCIS Announces Plan to Streamline Filing of Citizenship Forms, Immigration Visa Lawyer Blog, October 30, 2011