Is the Citizenship Test a Matter of Luck?

Citizenship Test and Interview
U.S. Citizenship Test
In most cases, anyone who applies for naturalization will need to pass a citizenship test, which tests English language ability as well as a knowledge of US civics and history. For many immigrants, the naturalization test is a stressful process but government officials as well as citizenship classes stress that passing the test is all about studying and preparing ahead of time. However, a new study suggests that luck may play a role in passing the exam as well.

Professor Paula Winke, who teaches second language studies at a Michigan State University has created a study that suggests that luck may play a larger role than previously thought when it comes to passing the citizenship test. According to Winke, test-takers must answer six out of ten questions correctly on the verbal civics part of the naturalization test. Immigration officers have a pool of about 100 questions, from which they can choose ten. However, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has never proven that the questions and valid, according to Winke, and some questions may be more difficult than others. According to Winke, this creates a potentially unfair situation in which the fate of an applicant’s citizen status rests on ten randomly selected questions, but those questions may be difficult or easy, depending on luck.

The study has been published in the Language Assessment Quarterly. It is the first research study to examine the reliability of the US naturalization test. Winke has concluded that although the USCIS has spent $6.5 million over six years since 2008 to make the naturalization test fairer and more standardized, the test is neither.

According to Winke, in order for the citizenship test to be fair, it would need to accurately measure what US citizens know and should measure what non-US citizens who have not studies do not know. However, Winke’s study found that 77 out of the possible 100 questions were equally challenging for citizens and unprepared noncitizens. In addition, Winke concluded that 13 of the questions were actually easier for noncitizens to get correct, which according to Winke means that the test may not be an accurate appraisal of a person’s knowledge of US civics. According to the study, USCIS needs to collect information about questions answered correctly and incorrectly on the test, to find out which questions are easy and hard for noncitizens and for US citizens. This, according to Winke, would ensure that test questions could be included on the test that actually correctly test civics knowledge.