Quarantine Goal: Ace the Citizenship Exam

A few weeks ago we were having a pleasant family dinner on the front porch and when the conversation lagged a bit, my husband thought it might be fun to play a game. It was a quiz actually, and the idea was to see how a few of our family members might score on a mock exam that applicants take to become a U.S. Citizen.

It didn’t go so well.

This game could come in handy if you have a social gathering you need to bring to an awkward and abrupt halt, or if Thanksgiving gets testy and you want to throw some verifiable facts into the conversation. However, it’s possible your guests will politely excuse themselves and grumble all the way home.

Before Kyle and I began teaching a Citizenship class two years ago I took a practice test, which like the actual test consisted of 100 questions that cover government and history. I’m terrible at memorizing facts, but because I was raised and educated in the U.S., my confidence level for acing the test was high. Around question 50, I realized that much of what I learned in history class was forgotten. And did I ever take a civics course? If I did, none of it stuck. Here are a few humbling questions that revealed how little I knew:

  1. What is the “rule of law”?
  2. When must all men register for the Selective Service?
  3. The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.
  4. There are four amendments to the Constitution about who can vote. Describe one of them.
  5. The House of Representatives has how many voting members?

That last question had tripped me up before. My answer was always, “somewhere around 400 and something,” which would not be acceptable if I was sitting across from the USCIS officer who was administering the exam. My score on the 100 civics questions was 70%. Passing, but definitely not the result that made me feel qualified to teach a class for green card holders. So I decided that I would take the humble approach of learning along with our students and make a commitment to gather context as the class progressed. I’ve learned more than I expected during five semesters of Citizenship class, but not all of my lessons have been history and government.

I’ve learned that the students who take our class are not casual about their desire to become Citizens. They have waited years to fill out their application paperwork (also known as an N-400 form). This usually gives them the opportunity to save up the $640 it takes to file the application, although the current administration has hiked the fee to $1,170 so in October new applicants will have to find the additional $530 in order to file for Citizenship. Students spend two semesters in our class, and they are diligent about attendance and homework. Most of them are not content to simply memorize the answers, but instead want context for why and how our democracy works the way it does, and when it doesn’t work so well they want to know how it can be improved. We don’t always have answers for those questions, but we don’t back away from them.

In addition to the civics portion of the test, there is a reading and writing component. If you are bi-lingual, then you will understand how difficult it is to read another language, and writing is even more of a challenge. Equally daunting to our students is the 20 page N-400 form they must fill out and be prepared to answer the follow-up questions. Some samples:

  1. Did you ever receive any type of military, paramilitary (a group of people who act like a military group but are not part of the official military, or weapons training)?
  2. Between March 23, 1933 and May 8, 1945, did you work for, or associate in any way, either directly or indirectly with: a) The Nazi government of Germany, b) Any German, or Nazi or S.S. military unit, paramilitary unit, self-defense unit, vigilante unit, citizen unit, police unit, government agency or office, extermination camp, concentration camp, prisoner of war camp, prison, labor camp, or transit camp?
  3. Have you ever been a: a) habitual drunkard, b) been a prostitute or procured anyone for prostitution? (the list of nefarious possibilities continues through the letter I.)

You get the idea. Watching a 58-year-old Burmese grandmother answer these questions is a bit tedious, but at least we’re keeping out the Nazis and the prostitutes.

The officer goes through each applicant’s N-400, asking questions and requiring them to clarify some of their answers. Kyle has accompanied many of our students to the USCIS office in Oklahoma City and watched their nervousness on the way there, and the relief and joy on the drive back. The students in our classes who take the test have all passed, and before COVID we were able to join them at their swearing in ceremony, held at various locations around the city and always a positive and celebratory event. If this was an easy attainment, our students wouldn’t take as seriously their status as citizens once they had passed the test and were sworn in. And I have learned that they do take their new status seriously. They want to contribute, be respected, and join with others to make our communities strong.

Which brings me to the point that continues to nag at me as we work with immigrants and the material they are required to learn. I wonder why we don’t take seriously our own civics and history proficiency so that we can connect that knowledge to current events. Would we ask more questions about executive orders if we better understood the concept of checks and balances? (Question #14) Would we be more protective of our democracy if we understood the concept of self-government as evidenced by the first three words of the Constitution, “We the People”? (Question #3). And would more of us vote in between presidential elections if we understood who actually makes federal laws (Question #16) and what powers belong to the states and not the federal government? (Questions 41 & 42)?

Our students are surprised when we tell them that many U.S. citizens would struggle with some of the questions on the exam. Some of us, I tell them, would need an “open book” exam to pass. It’s funny at the time, but when I look around at the polarization, the distrust of government, and the increasing dismissal of facts and attraction toward conspiracy theories, I wonder if there is a connection. Author and activist bell hooks said that “privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege.” Those of us who were born here don’t have to wait years and then pay exorbitant fees to take an exam that allows us to stay in the U.S. That’s a privilege. But if we are so privileged that we can ignore the truth of our history and the implications of civics on our current events, then we might have something to learn from our newest citizens sworn in each year. That number in 2019 was 834,000.

“Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege.

bell hooks

I’m putting a moratorium on citizenship quiz games during family dinners or gatherings, but I will issue a quarantine challenge for all of us. Let’s rise to the level of our citizenship students and work our way through the 100 questions on the test, which you can find here. If you make a passing grade, like my 70%, here’s something to know: our students are only asked 10 questions during the official oral exam in the USCIS offices, however, they don’t know which 10 questions they will be asked so they must be able to answer all the questions correctly. In other words, by the time they leave our class, they have to score a 100% on their practice tests.

Up for the challenge? If you take it on, let’s discuss quartering during the Revolutionary War, Poor Richard’s Almanac, and Publius (it will all make sense soon).

2 thoughts on “Quarantine Goal: Ace the Citizenship Exam

    1. Most schools do not. I believe there is a direct correlation between the lack of civics education in our schools and the place we find ourselves as a country. I realize there are plenty of other factors, but after realizing how little we know about our own system of government, I can’t help but make the connection.

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