Considering the New Citizenship Exam

Bill Bliss
By Bill Bliss

Considering the New Citizenship Exam

Statue of Liberty

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently announced a significant revision of the civics test that immigrants take in order to become naturalized citizens. The revised version will be required for all applicants with a filing receipt date of December 1, 2020, and after. The reading, writing, and speaking portions of the test remain the same, but the civics test of U.S. history and government knowledge is substantially changed, lengthier, and arguably more difficult.

New test item content:  A little more difficult

The content of the new civics exam is a combination of current questions (some exactly the same; some modified) and new questions related to U.S. history and government. (The current geography questions have been eliminated.) The new questions and the approved answers are somewhat more challenging than in the current test, but they seem fairly reasonable. An anonymous panel of educators advised on the creation of the items, and this participation probably helped provide a reality-check on the appropriateness of topics and language.

There are some content improvements that citizenship educators will probably welcome. New questions ask about the parts of the executive and judicial branches and the powers of the U.S. Congress and the President. The Supreme Court gets new questions about the number of justices needed to decide a case, the length of time justices serve, and the reason for lifetime appointments. (A lot of questions about the court, but certainly timely.) Woodrow Wilson has departed the test and some key historical figures have joined, including questions about Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. And a question about Susan B. Anthony is now expanded to invite students to learn about additional leaders of the women’s rights movement in the 1800s, including Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and others.

A few old questions have become a little more challenging. Instead of naming one promise contained in the Oath of Allegiance, applicants need to name two. Instead of naming two rights of everyone living in the U.S., applicants need to name three. And instead of naming three of the original 13 states, they need to name five.

Some test items seem more difficult than they actually are due to all the alternative acceptable answers. These alternatives might offer great enrichment for students at an advanced level, but most students will want to stick with the more straightforward answers. For example, a new question about documents that influenced the U.S. Constitution can be answered with the Virginia Declaration of Rights or the Iroquois Great Law of Peace. No worries, though, since the easy answer is the Declaration of Independence. And new questions about events of the Revolutionary War and Civil War include options to answer with the names of key battles, from Yorktown and Saratoga to Vicksburg and Antietam. Most students will probably want to opt for easier answers, such as the Declaration of Independence or the Emancipation Proclamation (unless they aspire to be Jeopardy contestants some day).

At least one content change should be controversial: The required answer to an existing question about who U.S. senators represent has been changed from “all people of the state” to “citizens in their state”. This isn’t correct. Given the current administration’s effort to not count all residents in this year’s census regardless of their legal status, it is reasonable to ask if this “error” is motivated by politics.

To help citizenship educators understand the civics test changes, I’ll share here the two comparison documents I always create when preparing a new edition of my citizenship course:

You can download the 2008 questions (with a comparison to the new 2020 questions) here.

You can download the new 2020 questions (with a comparison to the 2008 questions) here.

New test length and duration:  The greater challenge

The current 2008 version of the civics test requires applicants to answer up to 10 questions from a list of 100 potential questions and answers, and they need to correctly answer six of them. In the new 2020 version, 20 questions will be asked from a list of 128 possible questions and answers, and applicants need to correctly answer 12. (For applicants who qualify by age and length of permanent resident status for the “65/20” special consideration, ten questions will be asked from a list of 20, and six correct answers will be required.)

In actuality, while the new civics test is more than double in length, it could triple in duration for many applicants. In the current version, as soon as the applicant answers six of the possible ten questions correctly, the test is ended. However, in the new version, applicants will need to answer all 20 questions regardless of whether they have already answered 12 correctly. This will potentially triple the amount of time that USCIS officers need to administer the civics portion of the exam to some applicants – resulting in the possibility of longer and fewer interviews per day for USCIS officers, further exacerbating the agency’s backlog in processing citizenship applications.

Since the civics knowledge requirements will increase as applicants prepare to answer a larger set of potential questions, the goal of refreshing the test and improving its meaningfulness will have been achieved. Doubling the civics test’s length and potentially tripling its duration places an unnecessary burden on the applicant, the officer, and the naturalization process.

Some concerns and an opportunity for policy input

The current 2008 exam was developed with a significant amount of pilot testing, stakeholder input, item revision, and field-testing. A guiding principle was to assure that the test was standardized, fair, and appropriate, without being more difficult or decreasing the pass rate. There was also a good amount of transparency in that development process. For the 2020 changes, comparatively less information has been made public. Perhaps most important, it is unclear to what extent adequate field-testing has occurred in actual USCIS settings to assure that the new civics test is fair, reliable, and not increasing the incidence of failure. Presumably, the shutdown of agency offices earlier this year due to the pandemic and the ensuing backlog had some impact on the piloting. More technical information from USCIS about the field-testing would be helpful.

Although the new civics test is scheduled to be in effect for all new applicants as of December 1, the comment period for submission of feedback to USCIS about the policy change has been extended to December 14. So there is time for stakeholders to offer comments, suggestions, and questions. This will be valuable input, whether immediately for the current administration, or eventually when the new administration takes office.

Read the USCIS Policy Alert about the new civics test.

Read the USCIS news release about the test.

Access information about how to submit feedback to USCIS regarding the policy change. (deadline is December 14, 2020)

For any comments or questions, you can reach me at: bill.bliss@languageandcommunication.org

Voices of Freedom resources:

Voices of Freedom cover

A new training video includes a segment on remote instruction strategies using Zoom and Google Meet (segment begins at 25:48).

A digital flipbook version of the course with complete audio can be ordered here.

New Citizens, New Voters

Bill Bliss
By Bill Bliss

Did you know that . . .

10 percent of the total U.S. electorate consists of naturalized citizens?

Before COVID-19, up to 860,000 new Americans had been expected to take their oath of citizenship and be eligible to vote this year?

Up to half that number may not be able to vote due to months-long pandemic shutdowns at USCIS field offices, which exacerbated years of growing delays in citizenship processing?*

Since field offices reopened on June 4, citizenship oath ceremonies have resumed at a slower rate than usual through a variety of workarounds, including smaller indoor gatherings that observe social distancing measures, outdoor ceremonies, and even drive-through events sponsored by local governments. However, the months of postponed naturalization interviews have severely reduced the number of applicants who have completed the process and are ready to take the oath in time to register to vote.

The delays have stymied the efforts of the League of Women Voters and other organizations throughout the country to register as many new citizens as possible in time to vote in the upcoming election. For some states, voter registration deadlines have passed. But many states still have upcoming registration deadlines or allow simultaneous registration and voting on Election Day. You can find a useful state-by-state guide to voting deadlines and procedures here.

If you have current or former citizenship students who are eligible, encourage them to register to vote!

Our students cite being able to vote as one of their most important motivations for becoming citizens. And our instruction emphasizes this as one of citizens’ key rights and responsibilities. In celebration of this election season, here are complimentary lessons from the Voices of Freedom course that you can use with your students on the topics of rights, responsibilities, and civic participation, including elections.

If you are currently offering your citizenship instruction remotely or through a hybrid model due to the pandemic, here’s a new training video for Voices of Freedom that includes a segment on remote instruction strategies using Zoom and Google Meet.  (That segment begins at 25:48.)

And as a service to programs operating remotely, an electronic version of the course is also available here––a useful resource for screensharing and as an alternative to the print edition of the student book.

(*Information about delays in citizenship processing are available at these sites:  FiveThirtyEight, Boundless, and the Migration Policy Institute.)


To learn more about the Voices of Freedom course and its components, and for ordering information, please visit our digital catalog here.

Resources for Adult Educators and Adult Education Advocates

During the Adult Education and Family Literacy Week (AEFL Week), we have been promoting the value of and the need for adult education in the U.S. Advancing adult education and English language acquisition benefits not only individuals and their families but also their communities and the nation’s economy. By offering educational opportunities to adults, we help them achieve economic independence and social mobility.

But advocating for adult education should not be limited to just one week a year. It is important that we bring awareness about the need for adult education every day. Below is a list of resources for anyone who wants to get involved in advocating for adult education and family literacy.

Adult Education Is Needed Now – COABE website that explains the need for adult education

COABE/NCSDAE Educate & Elevate Campaign – A national campaign to help policy makers understand the value of Adult Education.  The website offers a helpful toolkit for organizations and individuals who want to get involved in the campaign.

National Coalition for Literacy – a national coalition of the national organizations and other advocates dedicated to advancing adult education, family literacy, and English language acquisition in the U.S.

Project Literacy – a global campaign founded and convened by Pearson that aims to end illiteracy by 2030 through partnership and action.

“Low literacy has a major impact on income inequality and parenting.” Read this AEFL Week Fact Sheet from the National Coalition for Literacy.

The Case for Investments in Adult Education – A white paper from ProLiteracy

Adult Ed helps immigrants integrate into the U.S—a brief description of why it pays to invest in Adult Education

Adult Education and Family Literacy Week Fact Sheet and articles

The World Education’s blog The Well – interesting posts on the topic of Adult Education, including ESOL.

Adult English language instruction in the United States: Determining need and investing wisely. An article from the Migration Policy Institute.

Links to best practices/resources for teachers:

Six simple ways to strengthen independent learning skills

On teaching effective learning

Tips for collaborative learning

Increasing student engagement

Toward comprehensive assessment in the adult ESOL classroom

English Literacy and Immigration

by Gosia Jaros-White, Marketing Manager, Pearson ELT USA

Immigration Statistics

According to American Community Survey (ACS) data from 2015, there are approximately 43 million immigrants in the U.S., which accounts for about 13.5 percent of the total U.S. population (321.4 million in 2015).i Furthermore, according to the Current Population Survey (CPS) from 2016, immigrants and their U.S.-born children totaled approximately 84.3 million people—27 percent of the overall U.S. population.

In 2015, immigrants accounted for about 17 percent (26.7 million) of the nearly 161 million workers in the civilian labor force in the U.S. The percentage of immigrant workers more than tripled (from 5 percent to 17 percent), between 1970 and 2015. Of the total number of immigrant workers:

31 percent worked in management and professional occupations;
24 percent in the service sector;
16.9 percent in sales and office occupations;
13.1 percent in construction and maintenance;
15 percent in production and transportation business.

The top five states with the highest immigration population were California (10.7 million), Texas (4.7 million), New York (4.5 million), Florida (4.1 million), and New Jersey (2 million).

Demographically, approximately 51 percent of immigrants in 2015 were women. Immigrants were also older than the native-born population—the median age of immigrants was about 44 years in 2015, whereas the median age for the native-born population was 36.

Immigrants with Limited English Proficiency (LEP)

In 2015, there were nearly 26 million individuals in need of English Literacy. ii These individuals are classified as Limited English Proficient (LEP) and represent 9 percent of the total U.S. population ages 5 or older. Out of that number, nearly 5 million LEP individuals are native-born and 21 million are foreign-born. The 21-million number represents approximately 49 percent of the 43 million immigrants ages 5 and older who were LEP.

Spanish speakers accounted for 64 percent (16.4 million) of the LEP population, Chinese speakers accounted for 7 percent (1.8 million), and Vietnamese accounted for 3 percent (867,000). The states with the highest share of LEP residents were California (19%), Texas (14%), New York (14%), Hawaii (12%), Nevada (12%), New Jersey (12%), and Florida (12%).

The overwhelming majority (75%) of LEP individuals were adults between ages 18 and 64. About 16 percent of LEP individuals were adults 65 and over. LEP children constituted 9 percent of the total LEP population.

In general, LEP individuals were less educated than English-proficient individuals. Forty-five percent of LEP adults 25 years old and older did not possess a high school diploma (compared to 9 percent of English-proficient adults). Only about 15 percent of LEP adults had a college diploma (bachelor’s degree or higher), compared to 32 percent of English-proficient individuals.

English Language Education for Adult Learners

According to the 2015 data, 1.5 million adults were enrolled in adult education programs.iii Out of the 1.5 million, 44 percent of adult students were English Language Learners (ELLs). These numbers indicate that only a fraction of LEP adults are served by adult education programs, and most states have waiting lists because of limited funding.

The population of ELLs attending English language courses is very diverse, representing adults from many different cultures, languages, educational backgrounds, and socio-economic and life situations. Many of these learners face very difficult financial circumstances, even though they often work long hours outside the home. Some of the ELLs are refugees from countries torn by wars or conflicts, and many deal with emotional and psychological traumas due to their experiences. The adults attending English literacy programs might possess post-secondary education, or they might be migrant workers from Central America with interrupted education. Some might have low literacy skills in their native language, and some have very little schooling and no written language.iv

Demographically, according to the National Reporting System (NRS) data for years 2014– 2016, about 64 percent of ELLs attending English literacy programs were women. Fifty-six percent of adults in these programs were between the ages of 25 and 44.v

Learning English is not an easy task for adults, especially those with low literacy skills in their native languages. Research shows that adult learners need between 85 and 150 study hours per year for six years in order to gain full English proficiency.vi NRS data indicate that on average, adult ELLs spent 190 hours per year, but two-thirds of them completed only one full level of education. Approximately 40 percent of ELLs completed more than one full level of education.vii What is important to note, however, that the levels most completed by ELLs are the beginning and intermediate levels (NRS Beginning ESL-Literacy–NRS Low-Intermediate ESL). ELLs at these proficiency levels do not have sufficient skills for successful transition into post-secondary education.

The Importance of English Literacy Programs

The importance of English literacy programs cannot be overstated. Since LEP individuals are more likely to live in poverty than their English-proficient counterparts (in 2015, about 23 percent of LEP individuals lived below the official federal poverty line compared to 13 percent of English-proficient individuals),viii adult education and family literacy programs are crucial to help these individuals improve their lives by giving them skills they need to succeed in a career, post-secondary training, family life, and society.

Increased English proficiency:

  • Reduces poverty rates.
  • Raises immigrants’ productivity, earnings, and income tax payments. (On average, English-proficient individuals earn 13–24 percent more than less proficient individuals.ix)
  • Lowers use of public benefits.
  • Allows adults to obtain more specialized training or pursue college education.
  • Allows immigrants to be involved in their children’s education. Research indicates that children of English-proficient parents achieve higher educational and workforce outcomes.x
  • Helps immigrants obtain citizenship and engage in all aspects of civic and community life.

Promoting Adult Education and English Language Learning

Advancing adult education and English language acquisition benefits not only immigrants and their families but also their communities and the nation’s economy. By offering educational opportunities to adults, we help them achieve economic independence and social mobility. A number of organizations are involved in advocating for adult education in the U.S. If you are interested in promoting the value and benefits of adult education and English language learning, explore the sites listed below and get engaged!

COABE/NCSDAE Educate & Elevate Campaign – A national campaign to help policy makers understand the value of Adult Education.

The Educate & Elevate website offers a helpful toolkit for organizations and individuals who want to get involved in the campaign.

National Coalition for Literacy – A coalition of national organizations and other advocates dedicated to advancing adult education, family literacy, and English language acquisition in the U.S.

Project Literacy – a global campaign founded and convened by Pearson that aims to end illiteracy by 2030 through partnership and action.


Sources

i Zong & Batalova (2017). Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States. Retrieved from: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/frequently-requested-statistics-immigrants-and-immigration-united-states/#Workforce

ii Batalova & Zong (2016). Language Diversity and English Proficiency in the United States. Retrieved from: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/language-diversity-and-english-proficiency-united-states

iii National Council of State Directors of Adult Education (2016). Blue Book: Adult Education Services, the Success, the Impact, and the Need. Retrieved from www.naepdc.org

iv National Coalition for Literacy. Immigration and English Literacy Fact Sheet 2013. Retrieved: http://national-coalition-literacy.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/immigration-and-english-literacy-fact-sheet-2013.pdf

v State-Administered Adult Education Program Enrollment of Participants by Age and Enrolled in ESL Functioning Levels Program Year: 2014–2016, using the United States Department of Education’s Office of Adult and Vocational Education’s National Reporting System figures retrieved from: http://wdcrobcolp01.ed.gov/CFAPPS/OVAE/NRS/login.cfm

vi McHugh, Gelatt, & Fix (2007). Adult English language instruction in the United States: Determining need and investing wisely. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

vii See v.

viii See ii.

ix See vi.

x See vi.

Resources for Educators of DACA Participants

On September 5, 2017 the Administration announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Below is a list of resources for educators of DACA participants and their families.

Five Things You Should Know about DACA

Frequently Asked Questions on DACA Termination

Frequently Asked Questions and Workplace Rights

Mental Health Resources for those dealing with fear and anxiety of ending the DACA program

Resources for Educators Supporting Dreamers

The End of DACA – What This Means for Educators and Students


Pearson CEO John Fallon shared a message regarding Pearson’s support for DACA and DREAMers. Read the full statement here.