U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced this week that it will again make changes to the naturalization test, reducing the difficulty of both the English-speaking section and civics section in response to “feedback received by stakeholders”. This update follows USCIS’s return to the 2008 version of the naturalization test after it abandoned changes made to the test by the Trump administration in 2020.
The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), at section 312, sets the English-language and civics requirement for naturalization, which is the term used to describe the process by which a non-citizen acquires citizenship. The law requires that a naturalization applicant have “an understanding of the English language, including an ability to read, write, and speak words in ordinary usage in the English language” and “knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of the history, and of the principles and form of government, of the United States”.
USCIS, the federal agency charged with administering these standards, has discretion over how it determines if naturalization applicants meet these requirements. USCIS announced that it will first conduct a trial to evaluate the redesign with help from community-based organizations (CBOs, or immigrant advocacy groups) who work with English-language learners and lawful permanent residents preparing for the naturalization test before making the changes permanent.
Under the current version of the civics test (referred to hereafter as the 2008 version), applicants for naturalization are provided 100 possible questions they could be asked during the test. USCIS also provides the answers to these questions so applicants can easily study. During the actual test, USCIS officers ask applicants up to 10 questions from that list of 100. To pass this portion of the test, an applicant must get six right.
The 2020 version of the civics test (finalized under the Trump administration) increased the list of potential questions from 100 to 128. Many of the original questions were retained while others were rephrased to ensure a sufficient number of questions with various degrees of difficulty. All questions and answers were vetted by the U.S. Library of Congress to ensure their accuracy, and again USCIS made all answers available so applicants could prepare. During the period USCIS administered this version, the agency required applicants to answer 12 out of 20 questions correctly in order to pass. The Biden administration, however, promptly scrapped this version of the test upon taking power 2021, despite CIS sources indicating that the passage rate for the 2020 test was nearly identical to the 2008 version.
USCIS announced, however, that its new trial test will maintain the same number of questions used in the 2008 version, but will instead convert the civics test content into a multiple-choice format, rather than a “fill-in-the-blank” format that requires the applicant to answer the questions based on memory. USCIS provided no rationale for the format change other than stating that the redesign was being pursued in response to “feedback received from stakeholders about the standardization and structure of the naturalization test”.
Additionally, USCIS announced that it is redesigning the English-speaking portion of the test to ensure the English-language requirements are “standardized and sufficiently test the ability to understand words in ordinary usage in the English language”. Currently, the English-speaking section is determined by the applicant’s answers to questions taken from the Form N-400 (Application for Naturalization) during the applicant’s in-person interview with USCIS: “If understands and responds to questions, directions, or prompts during the naturalization interview, then the applicant demonstrates the ability to understand English.”
The trial test, however, abandons the more formal questions on Form N-400 in favor of more conversational topics prompted by three randomly selected photographs “from a bank of approximately 70 images” depicting “ordinary usage” scenarios, such as “daily activities, the weather, or food”. The trial test will also include standardized criteria for assessment, thereby reducing USCIS officers’ discretion to judge the adequacy of the applicants’ responses. USCIS plans to refine the bank to approximately 40 images after it examines the results of the trial.
Finally, USCIS stated that it will not conduct a trial on the current English reading and writing tests. The agency explained that it believes these sections “sufficiently test the ability to read and write words in ordinary usage in the English language”.
USCIS stated that the agency expects the naturalization test redesign to take approximately two years and be implemented by late 2024. The trial period is expected to run for five months in 2023.