Scrapping the Revised Citizenship Test: A Baseless Political Move

By Robert Law on February 23, 2021

Citing President Biden's Executive Order 14012 directive to "eliminate barriers and make the [naturalization] process more accessible to all eligible" applicants, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that it is scrapping the current version of the civics test that naturalization applicants must take and is reverting to the 2008-2009 version of the test. "USCIS determined the 2020 civics test development process, content, testing procedures, and implementation schedule may inadvertently create potential barriers to the naturalization process," the agency claims in the press release announcing the move.

An intellectually curious reader seeking substantive analysis or examples as to how USCIS reached this conclusion will be left wanting. But, having worked at USCIS during the time the test was revised, I will show that, in fact, it is just a politically driven move that diminishes the hard work of career professionals and injects uncertainty and confusion into the naturalization process.

The English and civics requirements for naturalization are found at Section 312 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. A naturalization applicant must 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." As you can see, the contrasting requirements of "ordinary usage" for English compared to "knowledge and understanding" for civics shows that Congress gave USCIS some discretion in how it administers the civics test. The legacy Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and USCIS used that discretion to revise the civics test in 1997 and 2008-2009 respectively.

On July 19, 2019, USCIS announced it was revising the naturalization civics test "to ensure it continues to serve as an accurate measure of a naturalization applicant's civics knowledge and that it reflects best practices in adult education assessments." The team of career professionals who led this effort actually began their work in December 2018 with the goal of creating "a meaningful, uniform, and efficient test that will assess applicants' knowledge and understanding of U.S. history, government, and values." This undertaking was consistent with the historical practice of revising the civics test every 10 years, but anti-Trump alarmists alleged it was a nefarious attempt to shut down the legal immigration system.

Almost two years after the working group started its comprehensive review of the test, the agency announced on November 13, 2020, that it had finalized the revision to the civics test and that it would be taken by naturalization applicants who applied on or after December 1, 2020. During the nearly two-year endeavor, the working group retained some questions from the older test, rephrased the questions of others, and developed some new questions as well. Consistent with prior revisions to the civics test, USCIS received input from adult education experts and the Library of Congress vetted all questions and answers for accuracy. The questions were also piloted by community organizations that specialize in preparing applicants for naturalization. The only difference here is that the pilot was conducted virtually instead of in the classroom due to Covid-19.

Now, with this background, let's circle back to the four claims raised in the USCIS press release used to justify scrapping the 2020 test to see if they pass muster.

  • Test Development Process. The 2020 test development was led by career officials from the Office of Citizenship and Applicant Information Services, and included representatives from the Field Operations Directorate (the part of the agency responsible for conducting naturalization interviews), the Office of the Chief Counsel, and the Office of Policy and Strategy. A notable number of career employees on the working group were involved in the development of the 2008-2009 test. Verdict: Fail.
  • Content. The 2020 test expanded the pool of possible questions from 100 to approximately 128. Some old questions were retained while others were rephrased to ensure sufficient number of questions within the easy/medium/hard buckets. All questions and answers were vetted by the Library of Congress for accuracy. Just like the 2008-2009 test, USCIS made all the new questions and answers publicly available to assist applicants in studying. Verdict: Fail.
  • Testing Procedures. While the revised test increased the total number of questions an applicant had to answer correctly (12 questions out of 20 instead of 6 out of 10), it retained the same passing score of 60 percent. The 2020 test did require applicants to answer all 20 questions regardless if they had reached a clear level of pass or fail. This was structured to provide the agency with concrete data on applicant knowledge and to ensure that all questions have equal likelihood of being asked. USCIS also maintained the status quo for applicants who qualify for special consideration (at least 65 years old and at least 20 years as a lawful permanent resident), only requiring them to answer six out of 10 questions correctly. Verdict: Fail.
  • Implementation Schedule. USCIS announced on November 13, 2020, that the revised test would kick in for applicants who applied for naturalization on or after December 1, 2020. Given current processing times, that meant the earliest possible date of the revised test being administered was late January/early February. This implementation structure provided plenty of time for applicants to study the new material and for USCIS to thoroughly train officers on the new test. Verdict: Fail.

Not to pile on, but a USCIS source tells me that the passage rate from the small sample size of applicants subject to the 2020 test is nearly identical to the passage rate from the 2008-2009 test. So where exactly is the barrier to naturalizing? How does this version of the test make naturalization less accessible?

These justifications are nonexistent and baseless. Another description is arbitrary and capricious. As you can see, the 2020 test revision complied with all statutory and regulatory requirements and was developed through a fair and transparent process. While the Biden political appointees at USCIS are high-fiving each other (virtually) for killing the "Trump" civics test, all they have actually accomplished is disparaging and dismissing the commendable work of career professionals.