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January 04, 2022 HUMAN RIGHTS

Making the Grade: Civics Education as a Prerequisite to New Citizen Civic Engagement

by Ruchika Sharma

When I think about civics education, I’m reminded of a segment I saw on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno when I was a kid. I can’t remember how old I was, but I remember Jay Leno on the street, asking random passersby questions from the United States citizenship test. The U.S. citizenship test consists of two components—the first, a basic English exam, including the reading and writing of basic sentences as well as oral responses to questions that an applicant previously answered on the N-400 application for naturalization; and, the second, a civics exam, which applicants must answer 10 out of 100 possible questions that test an applicant’s knowledge of U.S. history and government. I remember the audience gasping and laughing as their fellow Americans struggled to answer basic civics questions like: How many amendments does the Constitution have? What are the branches of the U.S. government? What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?

A Google search will show you this sort of prerecorded segment is popular with late-night hosts—so much so that there are clips of these hosts quizzing international celebrities with questions from the civics test. But where did the test come from?

Enfranchising new citizens with a deeper understanding of the impact of their vote, will result in more purposeful civic participation.

Enfranchising new citizens with a deeper understanding of the impact of their vote, will result in more purposeful civic participation.


A Timeline

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services History Office explains that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, citizenship tests were primarily administered orally by state and federal judges. Naturalization as a process was decentralized and varied greatly at the local level. It was not until 1952 that applicants were explicitly required to have a knowledge of U.S. history and government to become naturalized citizens. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 states:

No person except as otherwise provided in this subchapter shall hereafter be naturalized as a citizen of the United States upon his own application who cannot demonstrate (1) an understanding of the English language, including an ability to read, write, and speak words in ordinary usage in the English language: Provided, that the requirements of this paragraph relating to the ability to read and write shall be met if the applicant can read or write simple words and phrases to the end that a reasonable test of his literacy shall be made and that no extraordinary or unreasonable condition shall be imposed upon the applicant; and (2) a knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of the history, and of the principles and form of government, of the United States.

The 1952 act was adopted against the backdrop of rising xenophobia and anti-communist sentiment in the United States during the early years of the Cold War. A product of nativist attitudes, the 1952 law furthered exclusionary practices via the explicit naturalization requirements it set forth and in the continuation of the racist national origins quota established in the previous Immigration Act of 1924. The naturalization process was amended again less than 40 years later with the Immigration Act of 1990. The 1990 act ended the practice of judicial naturalization and transferred naturalization authority from federal and state courts to the former Immigration and Naturalization Service and its examiners. The U.S. government did not standardize the civics test until 2008, after undergoing a nearly decade-long review to ensure that applicants “[have] a meaningful understanding of the English language and U.S. history and civics.”

The review resulted in a list of 100 possible questions that test applicants’ knowledge of principles of American democracy, government, history, and civics, as well as citizens’ rights and responsibilities. During the naturalization interview, applicants could be asked up to 10 questions and must answer 6 correctly in order to pass the civics exam.

This was the case until November 2020, when the Trump administration released revisions to the civics exam as part of a decennial review. The new exam numbered 128 possible questions and applicants would be asked 20 questions. Of the 20, 12 correct responses were needed to pass. Critics slammed the revised test for being more difficult than the previous version. Wording changes to several questions previously asked in the 2008 version were also a cause for concern. For example, both versions of the test ask, “Who does a senator represent?” In the 2008 version, the correct response would have been, “all people of the state,” whereas the 2020 version altered the response to “citizens of their state.” Immigration advocacy groups claimed that the longer, more complicated test was part of a larger effort to restrict access to citizenship, as the Trump administration had also announced an increase in naturalization application fees (up from $460 to $1,160 for online filing and $1,170 for paper filing).

Which Test Should I Study For?

The Trump administration’s changes were set to take effect in December 2020, but in the month following the commencement of the Biden administration, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released guidance on the administration of the civics test. In line with the Executive Order on Restoring Faith in Our Legal Immigration Systems and Strengthening Integration and Inclusion Efforts for New Americans, USCIS announced that it would revert to the 2008 test, citing public comment that stated the 2020 civics test was implemented with little notice to applicants preparing to sit for their naturalization interview. Both the 2008 and 2020 versions would be offered to applicants during a brief transition period to accommodate those who had filed for naturalization on or after December 1, 2020, and before March 1, 2021.

From personal experience, my family and I had filed our N-400 applications for naturalization in September 2020 and were instructed that, because we had filed before December, we would receive the 2008 version of the test. It had been almost a decade since I had sat for the Advanced Placement United States History exam, and neither of my parents had formally studied U.S. history. Over post-work, late-night Facetime calls, my family would scroll through the list of 100 questions and quiz one another, much like Jay Leno did to those unsuspecting folks on the street. My parents relied on the USCIS mobile app, practicing with multiple-choice questions in the days leading up to their respective interviews.

I couldn’t tell you the questions I was asked during my naturalization interview, mostly because I don’t remember—my only memory is just how nervous I was. But on August 2, 2021, standing in the socially distanced ceremony room and donning a mask, I raised my right hand and recited the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. After almost 18 years to the day when I first moved to the United States, I had finally arrived at the end of my pathway to citizenship.

“Passing the Test”

What is the purpose of a citizenship test? Some proponents argue that the test proves an immigrant’s loyalty to the United States and is essential for successful assimilation into U.S. society. In this vein, the Oath of Allegiance furthers the goal of such a “loyalty test,” in explicitly requiring immigrants to “declare, on oath, that [they] absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which [they] have heretofore been a subject or citizen.” Immigration law tells us otherwise, as it is possible for a U.S. citizen to hold dual citizenship in many instances.

Thinking back to the civics test and my family’s preparation, more emphasis was placed on studying for the test and less on learning U.S. history and the rights we were about to gain. I believe that civic education is necessary for the civic engagement of new citizens; its current format is not accomplishing the goal it set out for itself.

The reality is that most Americans could not pass the civics test. Don’t just take Jay Leno’s word for it—a 2018 Woodrow Wilson Foundation study determined that just one in three Americans would pass the civics test if they had to take it. To prepare new citizens for impactful and meaningful civic engagement, the government should focus its efforts on creating and funding a civic education curriculum prior to the point of application. I learned a very sanitized version of U.S. history until I arrived at college, and I believe that a historically accurate and robust curriculum could serve the goal of imparting the newly naturalized with a truthful understanding of the history and government of the United States. Moreover, moving away from “studying to pass the test” and instead to knowing one’s rights as a U.S. citizen and understanding their impact would ensure meaningful participation in American democracy.

Lotte E. Scharfman, former head of the Massachusetts League of Women Voters, is credited with having said that “democracy is not a spectator sport.” Enfranchising new U.S. citizens with not just the right to vote, but also with a deeper understanding of the impact of that vote, will result in more purposeful civic participation and a healthier democratic society.

Test Yourself

2008 Civics Test

  • What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?
  • What movement tried to end racial discrimination?
  • Why does the flag have 13 stripes?

2020 Civics Test

  • Why do U.S. representatives serve shorter terms than U.S. senators?
  • Who does a U.S. senator represent?
  • What is the form of government of the United States?

Answers available at the bottom.

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Ruchika Sharma

Program Associate, ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice

Ruchika Sharma is a program associate with the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice. She graduated in 2019 with a B.A. in International Affairs from The George Washington University. She is currently applying to law school and hopes to pursue a career in civil rights and public policy.

Test Yourself Answers

What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?

Checks and balances, separation of powers

What movement tried to end racial discrimination?

The Civil Rights movement

Why does the flag have 13 stripes?

Because the stripes represent the original colonies

Why do U.S. representatives serve shorter terms than U.S. senators?

To more closely follow public opinion

Who does a U.S. senator represent?

All the citizens of their state

What is the form of government of the United States?

Republic, constitution-based federal republic, representative democracy