Posted on July 11, 2023

US Citizenship Test Changes Are Coming, Raising Concerns for Those With Low English Skills

Trisha Ahmed, Associated Press, July 5, 2023

The U.S. citizenship test is being updated, and some immigrants and advocates worry the changes will hurt test-takers with lower levels of English proficiency.

The naturalization test is one of the final steps toward citizenship — a monthslong process that requires legal permanent residency for years before applying.

Many are still shaken after former Republican President Donald Trump’s administration changed the test in 2020, making it longer and more difficult to pass. Within months, Democratic President Joe Biden took office and signed an executive order aimed at eliminating barriers to citizenship. In that spirit, the citizenship test was changed back to its previous version, which was last updated in 2008.

In December, U.S. authorities said the test was due for an update after 15 years. The new version is expected late next year.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services proposes that the new test adds a speaking section to assess English skills. An officer would show photos of ordinary scenarios – like daily activities, weather or food – and ask the applicant to verbally describe the photos.

In the current test, an officer evaluates speaking ability during the naturalization interview by asking personal questions the applicant has already answered in the naturalization paperwork.


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


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.


Under federal law, most applicants seeking citizenship must demonstrate an understanding of the English language – including an ability to speak, read and write words in ordinary usage – and demonstrate knowledge of U.S. history and government.


The U.S. currently has the easiest citizenship test compared to other Western countries — including Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom — according to Sara Goodman, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Goodman said she 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 or not 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.

Elizabeth Jacobs, director of regulatory affairs and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies — a nonprofit research organization that advocates for less immigration — said the proposed changes would make the U.S. citizenship test even easier for many people.


The proposed multiple-choice format for the civics section would put the answer to each question in front of applicants, Jacobs said, and would get rid of the memory challenge that’s in the current test.


Jacobs said having a stricter test would help ensure that new citizens integrate into American society — and the economy — with sufficient English language skills, as well as promote a healthy democracy with civics knowledge and engagement.


More than 1 million people became U.S. citizens in fiscal year 2022 — one of the highest numbers on record since 1907, the earliest year with available data — and USCIS reduced the huge backlog of naturalization applications by over 60% compared to the year before {snip}