How to shape new U.S. citizens

Current tests miss the mark. We need to get serious about citizenship education.

If you can identify the current president, the colors on the flag, and the date of our independence, you're halfway there. Six correct answers out of 10 questions has for the last two decades proved fitness for American citizenship.

But the test is poised to make a big transition on Oct.1. The change has been a decade in the making and represents the first major overhaul of the test since 1986.

And it won't matter.

For the last half century, the test, which in its current form is made up of 100 questions about American history and civics, has functioned much like the written portion of the driver's exam. A test of memory more than anything else, it no more indicates preparedness for citizenship than knowledge of seat-belt law indicates road readiness.

The positions on immigration as yet staked out by John McCain and Barack Obama – defending the border, reevaluating guest worker programs, addressing so-called push factors in immigration – ignore the test entirely. Consequently, the test will continue to encourage cramming rather than promoting education. As such, the candidates will have missed an opportunity to address what Americans are truly concerned with: maintaining American culture.

American immigration law has long reflected this concern over culture, keeping out different groups at different times, from the Chinese in 1882, to Eastern and Southern Europeans 40 years later. Now it's the Mexican border Americans are worried about. Earlier Americans, concerned with preserving American values and the English language, lobbied Congress for restriction.

Yet they also tried an approach that more directly addressed the root of their worries. They started Americanization programs in the first decade of the 20th century, run by the likes of the Ford Motor Company, the YMCA, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the American Legion. The programs reflected belief that Americans are made as well as born.

But citizenship education programs were not without problems. They were disconnected from one another, they taught to different standards, and were voluntary. What they seemed to need was federal oversight.

So, in the decades between the First and Second World Wars, the federal Bureau of Naturalization sought to homogenize these programs and promote participation by developing a standard of competence for what immigrants should know. Naturalization agents also began to align the questions they asked in interviews of would-be citizens with their evolving standard.

In short, they were telling citizenship schools what to teach and holding immigrants accountable for that knowledge.

The process brought schools in line, and for a while, enrollment rose. But the standard focused heavily on facts, and that meant that if schools wanted their pupils to pass their naturalization exams, emphasis had to be shifted, away from programming like mock citizens councils or melting pot pageants and toward drills and worksheets.

Over the next few decades, the INS continued to refine its standard and bring citizenship education programs under its control. But the more regimented the test became, the more it transformed citizenship preparation classes into test-prep courses.

By the late 1960s INS publications prepared immigrants to answer questions like "What country do you live in?" and "Who was the third President of the United States?"

In 1986, standardization efforts culminated in a list of 100 questions, of which INS agents would ask 10. A score of six correct earned citizenship.

Although the citizenship test they're rolling out in October pays more attention to underlying political principles and structures, about half of the questions are rephrased questions from the 1986 test. Some questions focus on concepts like the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, but the test still requires applicants to correctly answer six out of 10 questions chosen from a published list of 100. And that means cramming. The original purpose of citizen education programs has gotten lost in the shuffle.

Neither complete local control nor standardized central governance has proven effective in citizenship education and testing. But why choose between the two? Our next president has an opportunity to take a bold step in immigration policy by talking frankly about the root of immigration concerns Americans have. From that honest starting point, he can propose a solution that is neither naive nor reactionary: educating immigrants in a way that allows them to be full participants while allaying the concerns of Americans worried about cultural preservation.

Getting serious about citizenship education represents a suitable way for a nation that, as John F. Kennedy wrote, carries the memory of old traditions while daring to explore new frontiers.

Jack Schneider is a Stanford graduate fellow at Stanford University and director of University Paideia, a precollege program for low-income students.

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