Proposed Changes to the US Citizenship Test Raise Concerns for Limited English Proficient Test Takers

A new test for people seeking to become U.S. citizens is in the works, with the new version due to be implemented by the end of 2024. The test is one of the last steps to take in becoming a U.S. citizen— a long process that requires years of legal permanent residency for years before finally applying to be a citizen.

In a December 2022 Federal Register publication, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced:

“[The agency] expects the Naturalization Test Redesign Initiative to take approximately two years and be ready for implementation by late 2024. The trial test period is expected to run for a five-month period in 2023. An integral part of the Naturalization Test Redesign Initiative is trial testing because it allows USCIS to determine the suitability of the new test content and use data to refine test content.

Currently, the speaking test is determined by the applicant’s answers to questions typically asked by an officer during the naturalization eligibility interview. The questions asked are taken from the Form N-400, Application for Naturalization (Form N-400). During the interview, the officer reviews the applicant’s responses to the questions in the Form N-400 for accuracy. The applicant may respond with simple words or phrases.

There is also an overarching test to evaluate an applicant’s ability to understand the English language. If the applicant understands and responds to questions, directions, or prompts during the naturalization interview, then the applicant demonstrates the ability to understand English. USCIS officers are required to repeat and rephrase questions until they are satisfied that the applicant either fully understands the question or does not understand English. The applicant is not required to provide a definition of a word or phrase found in Form N-400 to establish understanding of the English language…

USCIS is developing the trial test for the naturalization test redesign in response to feedback that USCIS received from stakeholders about the standardization and structure of the naturalization test. USCIS is conducting the trial as part of its effort to redesign the naturalization test to better ensure that the English-speaking part of the English Language requirements is standardized and sufficiently tests the ability to understand words in ordinary usage in the English language. Further, during the trial testing, USCIS would be assessing the understanding of English through the questions or prompts given with the speaking test instead of using the interview questions and Form N-400. However, in the trial testing, USCIS would not assess the understanding of English as part of the reading and writing portions of the naturalization test.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the citizenship test, proposes that the new exam add a speaking section to assess the applicant’s spoken English skills. An officer would show photos of common scenarios, such as daily activities, weather conditions, or food – and ask the applicant to describe each photo verbally in English. The current citizenship test evaluates speaking ability during the naturalization interview by asking personal questions the applicant has already answered in completing the required naturalization paperwork.

However, many immigrants and advocacy organizations are concerned that lower English proficient citizenship applicants taking the test will struggle with the new format.

“For me, I think it would be harder to look at pictures and explain them,” said Heaven Mehreta, who immigrated from Ethiopia 10 years ago, passed the naturalization test in May and became a U.S. citizen in Minnesota in June.

Mehreta said she learned English as an adult after moving to the U.S. She initially found English pronunciation to be unexpectedly difficult. She is concerned that the new test’s proposed speaking section based on photos, rather than personal questions, will make the test challenging to applicants like her.

Shai Avny, who immigrated from Israel five years ago and became a U.S. citizen in 2022, said the new speaking section could also increase the stress applicants already feel during the test.

The USCIS has stated it will conduct a nationwide trial of the proposed changes in 2023 with opportunities for public feedback. Then, an external group of language acquisition, civics, and test development experts will review the results of the trial and recommend ways to best implement the proposed changes, which could take effect late next year.

According to the Associated Press, the U.S. currently has the easiest citizenship test compared to other Western countries.

Sara Goodman, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine uses the following metrics to determine the difficulty of a test: the number of questions required to pass and the number of questions overall, the percentage of applicants who pass the test, the language level of the test, and whether questions with answers are made available to study before taking the test.

“In the U.S. test, applicants must answer six out of 10 questions correctly to pass. About 96% of applicants pass the test, according to recent estimates. The test is at a “high beginner” level of English, Goodman said, and a question bank with answers is made available to study beforehand.

But in the German test, Goodman said applicants must answer 17 out of 33 questions correctly to pass. About 90% of applicants pass the test, according to recent estimates. The test is at an “intermediate” level of German, according to Goodman. And a question bank with answers is made available.

The Canada and United Kingdom tests are even harder, and a question bank is not provided in the latter, Goodman said.”

A second proposed test change would make the civics section on U.S. history and government multiple-choice instead of the current oral short-answer format.

As the A.P. reports:

“Bill Bliss, a citizenship textbook author in Massachusetts, gave an example in a March 2023 blog post ( of how the revised test would become more difficult because it would require a larger base of U.S. history [knowledge.]

A current civics question has an officer asking the applicant to name a war fought by the U.S. in the 1900s. The applicant only needs to say one out of five acceptable answers – World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War or Gulf War – to get the question right.

But in the proposed multiple-choice format, the applicant would read that question and select the correct answer from the following choices:

  1. Civil War
  2. Mexican-American War
  3. Korean War
  4. Spanish-American War

The applicant must know all five of the wars fought by the U.S. in the 1900s in order to select the one correct answer, Bliss said, and that requires a “significantly higher level of language proficiency and test-taking skill.”

Currently, the applicant must answer six out of 10 civics questions correctly to pass. Those 10 questions are selected from a bank of 100 civics questions. The applicant is not told which questions will be selected but can see and study the 100 questions before taking the test.

Lynne Weintraub, a citizenship coordinator at Jones Library’s English as a Second Language Center in Massachusetts, said the proposed format for the civics section could make the citizenship test harder for people who struggle with English literacy. That includes refugees, elderly immigrants and people with disabilities that interfere with their test performance.”

More than 1 million people became U.S. citizens in 2022. This was one of the highest numbers of new citizens since 1907, the earliest year with available data. The 1,000,000 new citizens helped USCIS reduce the huge waiting list of naturalization applications by over 60% compared to 2021, according to a December 2022 USCIS report:

Concerns about the accessibility of the new test format for limited English proficient, refugees, and disabled applicants will await the test evaluation process. The 2023 public trials of the proposed test will be important opportunities for informing USCIS about language and cultural based issues concerning the potential new U.S. citizenship exam.

© Bruce L. Adelson 2023. All Rights Reserved The material herein is educational and informational only.  No legal advice is intended or conveyed.

Bruce L. Adelson, Esq., is nationally recognized for his compliance expertise.  Mr. Adelson is a former U.S Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Senior Trial Attorney.  Mr. Adelson is a faculty member at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and University of Pittsburgh School of Law where he teaches organizational culture, implicit bias, cultural and civil rights awareness.

Mr. Adelson’s blogs are a Bromberg exclusive.