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Matthew Kohrell teaches a citizenship class using a remote internet connection, Monday, March 15, 2021, in Lincoln, Neb.

Justin Wan, for the Deseret News

Critics say Trump’s changes to the citizenship test made it harder. Here’s what actually happened to the failure rate

The Biden administration will revert to a 2008 civics test as it prepares for other changes in the naturalization process

SHARE Critics say Trump’s changes to the citizenship test made it harder. Here’s what actually happened to the failure rate
SHARE Critics say Trump’s changes to the citizenship test made it harder. Here’s what actually happened to the failure rate

When Matthew Kohrell heard that the Biden administration would rescind recent changes to the civics test immigrants must pass to become U.S. citizens, a song from the film “The Wizard of Oz” came to his mind.

“I thought, ding, dong, the test is gone,” said Kohrell, who teaches citizenship classes in Lincoln, Nebraska. He feared that a new test, implemented in December 2020, would make it harder for his students to become U.S. citizens.

Critics of the change say it was an underhanded attempt by the Trump administration to reduce immigration and claim some of the new questions had conservative bias.

Preliminary data, however, suggests that the failure rate on the new test could be equal or even lower than that of the previous version. Of 110 people who took the new test between Dec. 1 and Feb. 22, between 94% and 95% passed, according to federal immigration officials, compared to the 91% pass rate for the other test, which dates to 2008.

And some scholars argue that the naturalization process is more meaningful when it is challenging and that immigrants are more likely to succeed in the U.S. when they are grounded in its history.

“Cultural knowledge and civics knowledge is incredibly key to success in America — in any country, but especially in a place that is a free democracy,” said Mike Gonzalez, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation and author of the 2020 book “The Plot to Change America.”

The federal agency in charge of naturalization, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, announced Feb. 22 that it would stop administering the new test on April 19, after an interim period where people have a choice of which test to take.

There may be other changes coming, too. In an executive order on immigration issued Feb. 2, President Joe Biden called for the agency to consider other actions to make becoming a U.S. citizen easier, including reducing the application fee.

Regardless of what happens, all Americans might want to pay more attention to what’s on the citizenship test, especially if there are teens in their family. The Oklahoma Legislature is considering a bill that would require high school seniors to pass the naturalization civics test before they can graduate. Utah already requires that.

And native-born Americans, as it turns out, aren’t especially knowledgable about the inner workings of their country.


Matthew Kohrell teaches a citizenship class using a remote internet connection, Monday, March 15, 2021, in Lincoln, Neb.

Justin Wan, for the Deseret News

‘It was a bear’

Kohrell lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, which has a large and growing population of immigrants, including one of the largest concentrations of Yazidis in North America. Between 3,000 and 4,000 Yazidis from Iraq and Syria live in Lincoln, and the foreign-born population of Nebraska nearly doubled between 2000 and 2017, from 4.3 to 7.8%, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Like many other Nebraskans, Kohrell has stepped up to help the immigrants feel welcome and to help them prepare to become U.S. citizens. He teaches English as a second language and classes that prepare immigrants to take the tests they must pass to become Americans. He said he was dismayed when he first learned of the new test in December.

“When I saw the changes, I was very concerned, because it was a bear, the way they worded some of the questions,” Kohrell said. “From my perspective, some of my former advanced students could handle this, but in reality, many of the people who take my classes, which are now on Zoom, their English level is lower and (the changes) could be a huge obstacle for them becoming citizens.”

The civics portion of the naturalization test requires applicants to study a wide range of questions and answers about American government, history, geography and symbols. Among them: Why does the flag have 13 stripes? Name one of the two longest rivers in the United States. Who did the United States fight in World War II? And, what is one power of the federal government?

The 2008 test had 10 questions, and people had to get at least 6 correct to pass. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 91% of applicants passed the test in 2020.

The new test had 20 questions, and people had to get at least 12 right to pass. Additionally, applicants were given 100 questions to study in preparation for the 2008 test, but were given 128 questions to prepare for the 2020 version. The new requirements could be daunting, especially for people who had little notice of the change, said Paula Winke, professor of linguistics and languages and director of the second language studies program at Michigan State University in Lansing.

“For a really high-stakes test, where a lot is in the balance, a larger test might mean more anxiety and more nervousness and may take more time to prepare,” said Winke, who has researched the reliability of the 2008 test as an indicator of civics knowledge.

To native-born Americans who are fluent in English, a 10- or 20-question test might not seem like a big deal, nor the requirement to write and read a sentence in English. But Kohrell said many of his students work multiple jobs and have limited time to study, and women, in particular, sometimes come from a culture in which they had little formal education, if at all.

“These are typically people working full time in manufacturing and restaurants or whatever, trying to take care of a family and learn English at the same time,” he said.

Because of the twin challenges of language and time, much preparation for the test comes down to memorization, Winke said. While some of the questions are simple, like “Who is the president of the United States?”, others are more challenging, such as “Many documents influenced the U..S. Constitution; name one.” And because there are multiple versions, given at the discretion of the officer administering the test, for some applicants, U.S. citizenship may turn on what version of the test they get, she said.

Winke says the U.S. should be analyzing the pass-fail rate of each version of the test along with demographic information about applicants to ensure that there is no disproportionate passing or failing in certain groups.

“If you give someone test form A, with a set of questions, or test form B, with a different set of questions, the forms should be equivalent (in difficulty). You becoming a U.S. citizen should not depend on what test you randomly get assigned the day you walk in to take the test,” she said, adding that her research on the 2008 test showed that some of the versions were more difficult than others.


Matthew Kohrell, a citizenship teacher, poses for a portrait, Monday, March 15, 2021, in Lincoln, Neb.

Justin Wan, for the Deseret News

The cost of failure

The civics test is one of three requirements for citizenship; the others are an interview and a test of English proficiency. Despite the challenges of today, some immigrants of the 19th and early 20th century had to clear an even higher bar, according to a 2018 report on the history of the civics test, written by Sarah Van Ruyskensvelde and Mary Kathryn Ketch.

Then, local officers had the power to grant citizenship, and each jurisdiction had different policies about testing civic knowledge. “Those judges who did require a civics test, universally performed these examinations orally in an open court room. Questions about American government and history were proposed at random, and as a result, many immigrants failed and were denied citizenship,” Van Ruyskensvelde and Ketch wrote.

By 1918, the bureau that governed immigration produced a Federal Citizenship Textbook, but it wasn’t until 1950 that there was a specific collection of information that applicants were instructed to learn.

The modern testing system dates to 1986, when the first civics test of 10 questions drawn from a pool of 100 was implemented. Today, many applicants study for the test using flash cards downloaded from the internet. They pay $725 (an amount that can be reduced because of income or age) and have two tries to pass the test. If they fail both times, immigrants can apply an unlimited number of times, but have to pay the fee each time.

Conservative tilt?

In making the announcement about the change, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services made no reference to the previous administration, saying only that “the 2020 civics test development process, content, testing procedures and implementation schedule may inadvertently create potential barriers to the naturalization process.”

The agency did, however, make reference to Biden’s Feb. 2 executive order on immigration that instructed federal officials to, among other things, “eliminate barriers in and otherwise improve the existing naturalization process.”

Others were quick to link the changes to the policies of former President Donald Trump. Among them were Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern University, who wrote for Politico Magazine that the new test had a “decidedly conservative political tilt, sometime to the point of inaccuracy.”

One of the changes that Lubet and other critics flagged was the question “Who does a U.S. senator represent?” The answer given for the new test is “citizens of their state” as opposed to the 2008 answer, which was “all people of the state.”

Lubet added, “There are five questions and answers that include the Federalist Papers, revered by today’s American conservatives, including the Federalist Society, a legal organization whose members have included many of Trump’s judicial nominees, and ‘The Federalist,’ a right-wing magazine. In contrast, there are only two questions about the civil rights movement and three about women’s suffrage.”

But Gonzalez, at the Heritage Foundation, dismissed the suggestion that the 2020 test was politically biased and prohibitively difficult.

Gonzalez was born in Cuba and immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age 14. He said the naturalization process should be a “truly transformative” experience for immigrants and that a challenging test is part of that process.

“My perspective is this one: You want a transformation. You want the immigrant to feel emotional, to feel that he has achieved something and achieved something that was not easy,” said Gonzalez, who became a U.S. citizen at age 24.

Cultural and civic education helps to forge a link between immigrants and their new country, similar to what Abraham Lincoln said in his 1858 address that became known as the “electric cord speech,” Gonzalez said.

In that speech, Lincoln said that embracing the moral principles of the Declaration of Independence makes immigrants descendants of the Founding Fathers. “That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world,” he said.

Gonzalez said he wouldn’t want a test that set too high and difficult a bar for citizenship, but “I do want something in which a reasonable person who puts in reasonable effort can expect to achieve it.”

For many native-born Americans, however, even the old test was too challenging.

According to Katharine Gorka, writing for the Daily Signal, only about 4 out of 10 Americans could pass the civics portion of the naturalization test, and the failure rate is steeply sharper among the youngest Americans. Twenty percent of people under the age of 45 couldn’t pass the test, according to a 2018 survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

That percentage, however, might be higher in Utah, which since 2016 has required high school seniors to pass a civics test before graduating. The 50 questions on the test are derived from the list that U.S. naturalization applicants get.

And while the Utah State Board of Education doesn’t have hard data on the pass rate, since students are allowed to retake the test until they pass, spokesman Mark Peterson said, “Anecdotally, we hear about 90% pass on their first try.”