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Focus shifts in new citizen test questions

In draft, trivia takes back seat to US ideals

WASHINGTON -- Passing the test to become an American citizen will soon require more than knowing there are 50 states and nine Supreme Court justices. Instead of memorizing minutiae about US government and history, those seeking to put their hands on their hearts and recite the Pledge of Allegiance will be assessed on their grasp of the nation's ideals.

Unveiling the first major change to the exam in 20 years, the federal government said yesterday that applicants for citizenship would soon be asked to explain such phrases as "we the people" and "inalienable rights."

Instead of knowing how many branches make up the US government , they will have to explain why there are more than one.

The shift in emphasis is occurring after years of complaints that the exam tested trivia, rather than prompting prospective citizens to understand the nation's shared identity, and that it was administered unfairly, with applicants in some cities receiving harder tests .

"The goal is to make it more meaningful," said Emilio Gonzalez, director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that oversees citizenship issues. "When you raise your hand and swear allegiance to the United States, you ought to know what you're swearing allegiance to."

The agency listed 144 draft questions that could appear on the new test.

It plans to test them in 10 cities and then winnow the list to 100 questions.

As part of the exam, applicants will be given 10 of the questions. To pass, they must answer six correctly, as well as meet other requirements for citizenship.

After a year of bitter debate about overhauling immigration, the new test is likely to churn up controversy. While some conservative organizations praised the new questions as an improvement, groups that support fewer obstacles to immigration have flagged some they say are tougher and may raise hurdles to citizenship.

"Some of the questions are just off the wall," said Fred Tsao, policy director at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Chicago. "Other questions I found unusual. And the range of information that's being asked for is much broader."

One "odd" question, he said, asks what the minimum wage is .

"Someone who came in from India as a software engineer isn't necessarily going to know what the minimum wage is," Tsao said.

Although the new questions were designed to help create a sense of civic community, a member of the panel that advised the government on the test said yesterday that she thought they failed to achieve that goal.

The questions focus mostly on the federal government, Lorraine McDonnell, a political science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said at an immigration seminar in Los Angeles sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences.

"There's nothing really in there about how to participate as a citizen in your local community," she said.

Green-card holders, also known as legal permanent residents, are allowed to take the citizenship test after living five years in the United States, or after three years if they are married to an American or serving in the military.

Over a two- to four-month test period, the agency hopes to attract 5,000 of these prospective citizens to volunteer for the pilot program.

The new tests will start on an as-yet-unspecified date in January in Albany, N.Y.; Boston; Charleston, S.C.; Denver; El Paso ; Kansas City, Mo.; San Antonio; Miami; Tucson ; and Yakima, Wash.

There are three parts to the test: civics, reading and writing English, and speaking English. The new questions will be used in the civics section.

The reading and writing section will require applicants to define civics-based vocabulary words and read and write sentences on civics and history topics.

The words and sentences were chosen with the aid of testing specialists and teachers of English as a second language.

To allow time for groups to prepare study materials, the final version of the test will be introduced a year after the pilot study. Agency officials stressed that the pilot program was meant to refine an overhaul that has been six years in the making and will ultimately cost about $6.5 million.

"If the majority of people are failing, that probably suggests that some questions are not fair and too difficult," said Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the agency's Office of Citizenship. "We will take out questions that are just too difficult."

Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Services, said cities were chosen for the pilot study at random to reflect a representative sample of busy and quiet offices and all regions.

But of the top 10 states for citizenship applications, only four -- Texas, New York, Massachusetts, and Florida -- are included in the study, and mostly smaller cities were selected. The largest city, Miami, processed 30,413 naturalization applications in 2003-2004; by comparison, Los Angeles processed 164,016.

"It seems to me these cities are not where most of the immigrants are," said Tracy Hong of the Asian American Justice Center in Washington.

Some people questioned the difficulty of new sections on geography and the conceptual content -- changes heralded by others.

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