What should a new citizen know?

Cory Doctorow thinks that the questions that are on the current citizenship test for the United Kingdom are too fine-grained in their multiple choice responses.

Is it necessary to be able to rattle off the number of seats in each regional assembly? The multiple choice answers for Scotland were something like: a) 131, b) 130, c) 120, d, 100 — surely knowing the number plus or minus 20 percent is enough for daily life. The legendary difficulty of the test is largely down to this sort of fine-grained multiple choice answers; it’s important to know that women got the universal franchise in the late 1920s and the tradition is firmly established in the UK, but being able to name the exact year is beside the point, something that the test-designers clearly missed.

Apparently the British Home Secretary Theresa May is planning on changing the UK test but not necessarily for the better.

The paper says immigrants will also have to learn the first verse of the national anthem before they can become UK citizens.

Mrs May is understood to have scrapped sections of the test which dealt with claiming benefits and the Human Rights Act.

Instead potential immigrants will be expected to learn about Byron, the Duke of Wellington, Shakespeare and other historical and cultural figures.

The new version of the handbook, expected to be issued in the autumn, will include sections about key battles, such as Trafalgar, and British inventions and discoveries.

I forget what specific questions were asked of us when we applied for US citizenship, but recall that they were trivial ones. The test consists of ten questions on the history and structure of the US, administered orally, taken from a pool of 100 questions, and you are expected to get at least six right. You can see the full list of questions here. I found questions 55, 64, 70, 72, 74, 75, 80, 82, 84, 85 to be testing either highly obscure bits of knowledge (Q 85: What is the introduction to the Constitution called? A: The Preamble) or to require an absurdly brief response to a complex question. (Q 55: Why did the Pilgrims come to America? Expected answer: For religious freedom.)

This raises the question of whether such tests really serve any purpose at all. What could you possibly ask that would indicate that the person is worth admitting to the ranks of the citizenry? Presumably you want people who will be law-abiding and productive members of society. Can you really gauge this on the basis of a few factoids chosen at random?

I suspect that this test is mostly theater. Governments need to have some sort of test to show the public that they have some standards for admittance.


  1. Keljopy says

    In one study (http://detroit.cbslocal.com/2012/03/12/msu-study-us-citizenship-test-lacks-reliability/) of the 100 questions on the test, 77 were equally difficult for citizens and non-citizens, 13 were easier for non-citizens, and 10 were easier for citizens. I think this shows that the test is not really measuring whether someone is worthy of citizenship. Only 10% of the questions could even be argued to measure this.

    I would say it’s probably mostly theater as the general public doesn’t know how much money, paperwork, and background checking goes into the process before a candidate even gets to take the test.

  2. EwgB says

    Well, not all governments feel it necessary to do this kind of theater. At the time when I got the German citizenship there was no test to be taken. Mind you, there was some proof of worthiness required, just not a multiple choice one. One had to live in Germany for at least six years, have a fairly clean criminal record, be lawfully employed without claiming state benefits for a major part of that time (and at the time of application) and a proof of the sufficient knowledge of German language (e.g. language course certificate of sufficient level or high school diploma in my case). For some of the requirements there were even exceptions for example for elderly people who are unable to be employed anymore (that’s how my grandparents became citizens). One also had to state in free textual form the reasons to pursue the citizenship. Since I was 16 at the time, I applied for citizenship along with my parents, but had to state the reasons for myself.

    Now a test is indeed administered (a change in the recent years), but it is I think quite fair (I got a look at it when my girlfriend got her citizenship last year). It is neither overly hard nor trivial. What is asked are questions to the general structure of governance, and most importantly, whether the views of the candidate on justice, equality and human rights are compatible with the democratic values of Germany. The test has caused (and still causes) a lot of discussions in Germany.

  3. MichaelD says

    I think if its not known by at least 1/3 of people on the street it probably doesn’t need to be on there.

  4. calgor says

    I tried the UK test… Failed (16/24)

    And I do consider myself a well informed UK citizen.

    I would point out that many of the questions have no relevance to everyday life in the UK and the rest seems to comprise of topics that are not even taught to UK children – so why prospective immigrants need that info is beyond me..

  5. Durga says

    I don’t think the Preamble is obscure knowledge. I learned it in fifth grade social studies class. I can almost remember the whole thing; We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity…and I forget how it ends.

  6. Mano Singham says

    But remember, this is a test for new citizens who did not take American history in school. Also, people are not being asked what is actually in the preamble but the title of a section to a document, which is surely not as significant.

  7. says

    Instead of oral multiple choice questions, how about a few open-ended questions that they must answer orally, to gauge their knowledge of America historically, presently, and ideologically? A separate short written exam and multiple judges can be included. Of course, I’m drawing on the oral qualification exams given to phd students as a model.

  8. Hatchetfish says

    If the test asked for any of that content you memorized, or better, asked for some evidence of understanding of the meaning or import of the content, sure. It doesn’t. It asks about for the one word customary name of one section of a document.

    My LaTeX document source code all has a “preamble” too, and I’m nearly certain knowing I and most LaTeX users refer to it as such isn’t in any way relevant to citizenship, and more to the point, doesn’t prove anything but the most superficial and guesswork understanding of what that section of the document does or means. At best you can guess that it probably comes near the start, and if you know that LaTeX is written like source code, maybe you can guess that the preamble contains some settings and feature invocations.

    The name of a thing is worthless trivia, the nature of a thing is knowledge. Feynman explains it very well: http://testsidestory.com/2010/07/07/feynman-on-naming/

  9. says

    Questions about the values and purposes represented in the Preamble, or other parts of the Constitution, would be fair game in my opinion. However, testing the exact names and titles is of no significance whatsoever. That’s more like a test on late 18th century American English than on the structure of American government.

    In short, the questions should not be of the character “what is the name of the highest court?” but rather “what is the purpose of the Supreme Court?”.

  10. says

    Open-ended questions would be (and nearly always are) far better than multiple choice. Many institutions hate giving free response tests, however, because they can’t be automatically graded by machine. You actually have to employ experts to analyze and grade the tests. Such a horror [/sarcasm].

    Some people may claim that multiple choice tests are less open to bias and interpretation, but that’s nonsense. Both the phrasing of the question and the potential for multiple partially-to-wholly correct answers make multiple choice exams easily manipulated by those seeking to do so. Furthermore, they give no opportunity for the test taker to actually challenge the premises behind a bad question and demonstrate a broader knowledge of the subject matter.

  11. 'Tis Himself says

    Before the Voter Rights Act of 1965 was passed, many states required citizens to pass a literacy test before being registered to vote. These tests were designed to deny suffrage to African-Americans, Native Americans, and other minorities. Whites were exempted from the literacy test if they could meet alternate requirements that, in practice, excluded Blacks. These included demonstrating political competence in person or showing descent from someone who was eligible to vote before 1867.

    History has shown that blindly scored, written tests are much less likely to be abused. Oral testing is not a good idea as a citizenship requirement.

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