Revisions to the citizenship exam can help revitalize US civics education

Revisions to the citizenship exam can help revitalize US civics education
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Late last month, the Biden administration rolled back changes to the citizenship test enacted by the Trump administration in the final weeks of his presidency. Critics had argued the new test was more difficult to pass and constituted one more attempt by the former president to restrict legal immigration in the country.

Rescinding the 2020 civics test and reverting to the earlier version makes sense, for now. But it also may be the perfect opportunity to reconsider the value of any short-answer test, the responses to which many citizenship candidates memorize via flashcards. Reimagining what and how we teach civics to immigrants offers the prospect — and laboratory — to reexamine civics education more generally for the American people.  

Passing the naturalization exam, which includes an English proficiency test and a civics exam, is one of the final and most critical steps on an immigrant’s path to citizenship. Administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a part of Homeland Security, the current test requires applicants to answer correctly six of ten randomly generated questions drawn from a bank of 100 questions.

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The challenge of memorizing scores of dates, numbers and simplified facts does little to discourage this pool of highly motivated test takers. Ninety percent of immigrants pass the citizenship test that nearly two-thirds of American-born citizens would fail, according to the The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.  

Much attention is already directed at tackling civic illiteracy in our nation. Less discussed is how we can effectively introduce our nation’s history, government and Constitution to aspiring citizens, immigrants preparing for U.S. citizenship. We can start by asking what constitutes effective citizenship in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy. What knowledge, skills and sensibilities do we need to be active and competent participants in our local and national communities?

Rather than requiring immigrants to identify the year the Constitution was written, the number of voting members in the House of Representatives or which president presided over World War I, let’s acquaint them with the political theories that animated the revolutionary design of our government. Even minimal exposure to the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality and justice deepens our appreciation of why the framers created a government of limited, enumerated powers or why they distributed those powers among three distinct branches of government. Knowing that our government’s architecture was intended to prevent both abuses of power and safeguard our individual liberty provides meaningful context and enables citizens to better evaluate public policy and political rhetoric.

Equally helpful in trying to make meaning of today’s political and cultural landscape is understanding the origins of this radical experiment in republicanism, but not as a succession of generalized facts. Framing history as a series of struggles and opportunities and offering a storyline inclusive of diverse voices invite immigrants to see themselves as part of our nation’s narrative — and stakeholders in its future. 

Citizenship is not static; it is a way of being and moving through our society. Citizenship curriculum for immigrants should empower and engage. Knowing how to contact state and federal representatives is important; so, too, is understanding the mechanics of voter registration or volunteering for a campaign. Competent citizenship in a hyper-digital democracy requires knowing how to secure, source and verify information, to think critically about that information and to dialogue with others of different perspectives. Citizenship education for immigrants might best be conceptualized and delivered within the context of a master class, calibrated for language proficiency and informed and taught by educators of multiple disciplines, including history, philosophy and ethics.

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There is no better time than now to begin the work of reinvigorating both the content and delivery mechanism of our naturalization test — and to more fully realizing the civic potential of our naturalized citizens. The Biden presidency offers an exciting opportunity to reevaluate how we prepare our new citizens for intelligent and productive participation in our democratic processes and institutions. 

Immigrants, together with their U.S.-born children, comprise 28 percent of our total population. When we create opportunities for immigrants to merge into civic society, it enriches the social and political fabric of all our communities. 

Dana Devon is the project manager and course leader for the Citizenship Initiative at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, Pa.