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Changes to US Citizenship Tests Put Pressure on English Comprehension

For the first time since 2008, the US citizenship test is being permanently updated. According to advocates, the new design could put people with lower English proficiency levels at a disadvantage. 

The exam is a critical step toward receiving US citizenship. Many people never receive full citizenship, instead living in the US as permanent residents with their green cards instead. However, citizenship has benefits that even much-coveted green cards do not provide, such as the ability to sponsor others for visas, the ability to vote, and the protection from deportation. 

As such, changes to the exam make many potential citizens concerned about whether they will be able to pass. But what do the updates actually entail?

Anticipated Changes to the US Citizenship Exam

Currently, the citizenship test is one of the easiest in the world. There are two components: a civics portion and an English portion. In the English sections, the test-taker must demonstrate their ability to answer questions from their application, read out loud, and write an answer to a civics or history question in English. Meanwhile, in the civics section, the test-taker needs to answer six out of ten civics questions randomly chosen from USCIS’ 100 question bank correctly in a short-answer format.

The updates would change the structure of both sections. First, USCIS has recommended adding a more in-depth speaking section, in which the test-taker would have to look at a picture and verbally describe the scene to a USCIS offer. Advocates fear that this could be more difficult for people who experience testing anxiety.

Meanwhile, another proposed change would adjust the Civics portion to be multiple choice instead of short-answer format. This actually may make it more difficult. For example, one question in the test bank is “What is one right or freedom from the First Amendment?” Instead of naming a single right, the test-taker would need to read four incorrect answers to identify the correct one, challenging their reading comprehension as well as their civics knowledge.

All changes to the exam will be trialed over the next year to determine if they are effective at verifying applicants’ true English proficiency. Should they be approved, the changes should go into effect next year.

Potential Impact of Updating Citizenship Test Requirements

While the US test is easy compared to many nations, the rest of the naturalization process is expensive and time-consuming. Immigration advocates are concerned that updating the exam to make it harder could unfairly bar people who have been living in the US for years or even decades from gaining citizenship and its associated rights. 

There are a few reasons why the English portions of the test is of particular concern. First, despite the prevalence of English, the United States has no official language. This is very different from many other countries, where a language-based exam makes more sense. Immigration advocates argue that making English a requirement already forces people to learn a language that isn’t actually required for born citizens.

Second, requiring people to be able to speak, read, and write English puts certain demographics at a disadvantage, particularly those who would benefit most from citizenship. Older adults, refugees, and people with disabilities may struggle with literacy in any language, so requiring it on the test may be unfair. 

Despite these concerns, many people should not find the new test significantly harder than the old one. People who enter the country on employment or education visas like the H-1B or L-1 are most likely already proficient in the language. Still, it is more important than ever for all applicants to ensure their language skills are up to the level needed to pass the test if they want to become full citizens.

Prepare for Naturalization With Help From Litwin & Smith

The US citizenship test is a critical milestone on the naturalization journey. To prepare for the exam, anyone who has or desires a green card should make English proficiency one of their top priorities. However, that can be difficult to accomplish when you are also juggling the legal demands of naturalization. A skilled attorney takes some of this pressure off potential citizens. Let the expert immigration lawyers at Litwin & Smith handle the legal requirements so you can focus on preparing for the new test. Discover how we can assist you with US immigration, visas, green cards, and naturalization today by scheduling your 15-minute consultation.

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