MSU study: Citizenship tests aren't good measure of civics knowledge

Mar 11, 2012

A Michigan State University researcher says the United States citizenship test does not reliably measure an applicant's civics knowledge.

Paula Winke, an assistant professor of second language studies at MSU, says citizenship of some half-million immigrants may have been determined randomly.

Immigrants must correctly answer six of 10 questions on a verbal naturalization test. Winke says those questions are randomly selected by an immigration officer from a pool of 100 questions.

She says some questions may be more difficult than others.

"If your citizenship status hangs upon this one test as it does for many, the award of citizenship or noncitizenship may be arbitrarily made, based on the form that's pulled out of the drawer from the immigration officer," Winke says in an MSU release.

MSU says the study is the first to measure the reliability of the citizenship test.

Winke says immigration services spent six years and $6.5 million to make the test more standardized and fair, but she believes that wasn't accomplished.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services started using the new test in 2008. Applicants paid $375 million in fees to take the test; more than a million and a half people were interviewed and just over a million were approved for citizenship, according to Winke.

The test fee is $675, and applicants sometimes wait years to meet with an immigration officer.

Winke says the immigration service does not keep or publish data on the reliability of the test.

She believes the test should measure what Americans know, and what noncitizens who have not studied for the test don't know. Her study found 77 of the 100 possible questions were equally difficult for both groups.

Winke says USCIS should collect data to find which questions are difficult, and which are easy, to make sure only those questions that reflect Americans' core civics knowledge are on the test.