Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Civics and citizenry

Would you pass the exam to become a US citizen? OK, quick: who is the chief justice of the Supreme Court? In what year was the Constitution written? And how many amendments does it have?

Answer one or more of these incorrectly and you might not become a US citizen. These type of questions are used by the USCIS – the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Dept. of Homeland Security and formerly known as the INS – to determine whether or not to grant citizenship to eligible applicants. The passing score is 60%.

The test is being redesigned to become more fair, standardized, and meaningful. The new test – having been developed with input from immigrant advocacy groups, citizenship instructors, ESL teachers, and the government – is being piloted now and will become effective sometime next year.

Oh yes, the answers, which of course you already knew: John G. Roberts, Jr. is the chief justice. The Constitution was written in 1787, and it has 27 amendments.

Ready for more? How many stripes are on the flag and what do they signify? How many Supreme Court justices are there? Name the 13 original states. Complete sample tests – and civics flash cards – are available at I found lots of useful information there. For example I learned that the US has conferred honorary citizenship only six times, to: Winston Churchill, Raoul Wallenberg, William and Hannah Callowhill Penn, Mother Teresa, and the Marquis de Lafayette whose real name is Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert de Motier. I think that's an extra credit question.

The government does not publish comprehensive statistics on fail rates but does say that in regions that do report them only 5% to 10% of applicants fail. That’s not bad but it does make one wonder how well – or poorly – citizens might do. Some say the civics test is easier than most driving tests. That’s an interesting claim: a recent study estimates that one in eleven drivers would flunk their drivers test. In the UK, 43% of applicants fail their drivers test. They must have some US civics test questions on there by mistake.

Doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, pilots, and many other professionals must take and pass regular tests to ensure their competency and ability to practice over time. We pride ourselves on having government for by and of the people. One thing is for sure: being competent as citizens can only result in better government.


Anonymous said...

Don't think the driver test is a good comparison to make a generalisation on nation's competency.
The UK driving exams are more rigorous than the US, our roads are narrower and we do not have straight roads like you do.

Larry Shiller said...

Actually the UK is much more competent than the US when it comes to driving, having a significantly lower death rate per mile driven.