New citizenship test stresses civics
Arizona Daily Star
Oct. 16, 2008


 By Mariana Alvarado Avalos 

Tucson, Arizona | Published:


Rigoberto Sánchez, 38, prefers to play it safe.

He's already memorized the 100 questions and answers of his citizenship test. He doesn't want to take any risk by answering the redesigned test that went into effect Oct. 1.

"The new one is more difficult because the questions have more options," he said.

The redesigned test emphasizes the fundamental concepts of American democracy and the rights and responsibilities of the nation's citizenry.

To do that, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services recently completed a multiyear redesign of the naturalization test, which had not substantively changed since 1986. USCIS conducted pilot testing of the exam at 10 sites across the country, including Tucson. Feedback from this pilot was then used for the final version that was introduced Sept. 27, 2007.

According to USCIS, the redesigned test is intended to ensure that citizenship applicants have uniform, consistent testing experiences nationwide and that the civics test can effectively assess whether applicants have a meaningful understanding of U.S. government and history.

The three-section test focuses on American government, American history and integrated civics. Each section is also divided into subtopics. The new test introduces new civics questions including:

● What ocean is on the West Coast of the United States?

● Where is the Statue of Liberty?

● Name one state that borders Mexico.

Marie Sebrechts, spokeswoman with USCIS, said the goal of the redesign was a more meaningful test — one that doesn't simply require memorizing the answer, but provides more options for answering correctly.

Pima Community College Learning Centers citizenship classes are already teaching the new test, said David Irwin, PCC spokesman.

Claudia Arevalo, an immigration lawyer, said the structure of the new citizenship test will allow applicants to learn more about U.S. history and government.

"These are more specific questions. They want people to learn more about the Constitution. That makes more sense because it is pretty easy to just memorize questions and not necessarily understand their meaning," she said.

A report released by the Migration Policy Institute said the most significant change to the test is the new civics portion. The institute said the new test also reduces confusing or redundant terms. However, it still too early to tell if the test represents a meaningful demonstration of an applicant's understanding of U.S. history and government.

Applicants who filed their Form N-400 before this Oct. 1 and have their exam dates between this Oct. 1 and Oct. 1, 2009, can choose to take the old or the new test. Anyone who applied for naturalization on or after this Oct. 1 will have to take the redesigned one.

Construction worker Joaquín Ortiz, 42, took his test Oct. 3 and opted to take the old exam. "It's great I was able to take the old one, but if I had had to take the new, it didn't matter since it's almost the same. The only difference is it has more options," Ortiz said.

But others, like Sánchez, who filed his naturalization petition Sept. 19 and expects to get his test date soon, would rather take the old exam.

While some have raised concerns that a fee increase might reduce the number of citizenship applicants, Arevalo expects the number is going to remain the same this year.

"Fees are the same, the law is the same. Maybe a lot of people are going to rush things so they have the option to still answer the old test," she said.

Sánchez is glad he took the first step and said it was easier than he thought it might be. He became a legal resident in 1990, but he put off citizenship because he was afraid his English was not good enough to pass the test.

"The problem is that because we work at the fields and we don't really speak English there, we are terrified thinking we might not be able to make it," he said.

In fiscal 2007, nearly 2,400 people in Tucson became U.S. citizens.

● Contact reporter Mariana Alvarado Avalos at 573-4597 or at

Rigoberto Sánchez studies at home for his citizenship exam. With him are his children, Monica, left, Edgar, Emiliano and Diego. A redesigned test, which consists of multiple-choice questions, stresses the concepts of American democracy, but Sánchez has opted to take the old test. He says the new one will be harder.

james gregg / arizona daily star


New questions and with multiple choices:

Name one of the two longest rivers in the United States: • Missouri (River) • Mississippi (River)

Name one U.S. territory. • Puerto Rico • U.S. Virgin Islands • American Samoa • Northern Mariana Islands • Guam

What does the Constitution do? • sets up the government • defines the government • protects basic rights of Americans

Old questions had only one answer:

What is the Constitution? • The supreme law of the land

How many states are there in the union (the United States) • 50

What is the executive of a state government called? • The governor

Source: U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services

"Because we work at the fields and we don't really speak English there, we are terrified thinking we might not be able to make it."