Required to gain citizenship, the civics test is no joke

Required to gain citizenship, the civics test is no joke

Elliot Cayabyab, Reporter

My mother quietly looks over the form she just filled out. Her legs were shaking up and down, her hands flat in her lap. Despite studying for months with audio recordings, my mother was nervous. 

My step-father and I were sitting with her, but I was too young to grasp the importance of what my mother was about to do. Soon a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer called for my mother, leaving my stepfather and me. I remember the corridor full of anxious immigrant families and individuals.

Each year thousands of immigrants sit in the corridor of a USCIS building, waiting for their appointment with an officer. 

Annually ninety percent of immigrants that apply for naturalization to the USCIS become a citizen of the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 941,382 immigrants applied for U.S. citizenship in 2019 alone; 97,789 of those applications were denied.

Every applicant takes a civics test to determine if they can comprehend American democracy. If ninety percent of applicants can pass the test, how well would natural-born citizens fair? 

In 2019, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation administered a multiple-choice mock citizenship test to 41 thousand American citizens. Out of the thousands of respondents, fewer than half could pass the test. The fellowship foundation blames the results on the traditional teaching methods of the United States. But is the education system of the United States really to blame?

At the start of each semester, Instructor Brian Taylor’s government classes take a mock citizenship test. Despite most of the students being American-born citizens, only two to three students per class pass the test.


Mock test-

Over the past three weeks, West Ottawan reporters asked students and teachers to take a mock civics test online. The assessment was done online and only one-fifth of the test-takers passed. On average, the test-takers scored 8 to 9 points out of 20. (Twelve would constitute a passing score.)

Most test-takers incorrectly answered the following questions:

  • What is the rule of law?
  • Name two important ideas from the Declaration of Independence.
  • How many voting members are in the House of Representatives?
  • Who is the Chief Justice of the United States now?
  • Why did the United States enter World War 1?
  • The nation’s first motto was “E Pluribus Unum.” What does that mean?
  • Why did the United States enter the Persian Gulf War?

The questions above vary in difficulty. Some questions are easier while others seem more difficult. Yet American citizens cannot answer them correctly. Moreover, some students blamed the wording of the questions. 

“It felt as though the questions seemed almost obscure,” Soph. April Bith said. “A lot of the questions seemed pretty overwhelming, as I was not prepared in the slightest. Even as an American student myself, I struggled with answering the content of these questions.”

To other students, the contents of the questions were a notable problem. Jr. Emily Conlon believes the test just comprises simple facts and isn’t an accurate method of understanding the United States. “The test itself is full of questions that most average citizens are unlikely to know the answer to, especially since the test asks for the memorization of specific information, rather than an understanding of the overall events in American history and the evolution of parts of its ‘culture’,” she said.

However, the information learned for the civics test is the same for both born-citizens and naturalized immigrants. Students remembered learning the answers to the questions but couldn’t remember them. Bith gained a similar response from her mother, a naturalized citizen, when she asked her if she remembered anything she learned for the test. “She laughed really hard. The answer was a heavy, strong no,” Bith said.


The 2020 Change-

On December 1, 2020, the USCIS implemented a revised version of the civics test. The USCIS changed the process and the questions. 

“It seems like they wanted to make it (the civics test) harder,” Jr. Sarah Brown said. 

Instead of being asked ten questions and requiring six correct answers, new applicants were asked twenty questions and required to have twelve correct answers. The new test also replaced and added questions. However, the wording of the additional questions were vague and difficult to understand.

“The recent change to the civics test was likely not done so out of concern for immigrants,” said Conlon. “The extension to the test seemed to be done more out of mistrust and exclusion.”

The USCIS’s thoughts didn’t stray far from the students’ thoughts. On February 22, 2021, the USCIS announced they deemed the 2020 civic’s test could “inadvertently create potential barriers to the naturalization process.” Therefore, the USCIS reverted to the 2008 version of the civics test on March 1, 2021.


Students commented on how the test puts immigrants at a disadvantage. Noting the discrepancies, students proposed alternatives to the current immigration process. Solutions ranged from background checks to removing questions from the civics test.

“I think there should be different paths to citizenship, and one isn’t necessarily better than another, it’s up to the immigrant and their particular circumstances,” said Brown. “For example, someone might be able to show investment in the country by working or volunteering for their local government, or just by living here a long time.”

“I think that as long as somebody understands the basic laws in the place that they live, they should be fine,” said Conlon. “Rather than spending money and resources on requiring people to take a citizenship test, more resources should go into helping provide resources to assist immigrants in getting adjusted.”

However, there are still others who perceive immigrants effortlessly getting naturalized as unnecessary as the others perceive the test. “A substantial amount more people will be able to get it (citizenship) more easily. The ease of it (the citizenship test) lessens the value of the title. Also, the questions on the test include topics that every citizen should know, like how our government works. A citizen needs to know this in order to use their rights as a citizen,” Jr. Isaiah Nguyen said.

When my mother walked back into the corridor, I remember a smile on her face. 

“How did it go?” I asked her, months of the audio recording ingrained into my mind. She passed the interview, only needing to answer six civic questions. As a result, in April of 2013, my mother and I were naturalized after she took the oath of allegiance. Since then I’ve understood the importance of the citizenship test and the difficulty thereof.