US will redesign citizenship exam

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What color are the stars on our flag? How many representatives are in Congress? Who becomes president if the president and the vice president should die? Who wrote ''The Star-Spangled Banner?" The federal government has decided that these questions -- five of the 100 that could appear on the US citizenship test -- are trivial. They say the exam, which is supposed to gauge how well immigrants understand and embrace US institutions, instead tests only their ability to memorize answers. So the Office of Citizenship is designing a new test, to be administered starting in 2008.

It will ask aspiring citizens about what it means to be American, rather than quiz them on picayune facts. Officials say it is more important to ask immigrants about such principles as freedom of speech and religion, than for them to know trivia quiz items like how many amendments there are to the Constitution.

The proposed change is already triggering debate over what should be expected of immigrants who want to become citizens.

But the goal, says Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the Office of Citizenship at the Department of Homeland Security, is to design a process that will ultimately produce citizens who are more involved, more aware of their rights and responsibilities, and more American. ''We don't think the current test encourages civil learning and attachment to the country," he said.

''We want to celebrate diversity and encourage the common values that link every American," Aguilar said in an interview. ''Immigrants who embrace those values become fully American. . . . You're going to have an immigrant population more integrated and more involved in civic culture."

Immigrant advocates agree that having prospective citizens identify closely with American values is good for both new arrivals and their adopted country. But some advocates worry that making the exam more sophisticated will also make it too difficult for many immigrants who already live and work in the United States with green cards, the documents carried by legal permanent residents.

They are also concerned that a new test, with questions on concepts such as the federal system and the rule of law, will require better English skills than the basic level required by the current test. Despite rising naturalization rates, millions of eligible immigrants, particularly those who are poorer and lack English language skills, opt to not seek citizenship.

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