The Citizenship Test: Confronting Citizenship in the US Politics Classroom

Ninety percent of my incoming students in my introduction to American Politics course cannot pass the US Citizenship test.  This may not surprise those of us who teach it, but it sure surprises them, and is therefore one of my favorite exercises to use in class.

On the first day of class, I hand out an ‘Ungraded Pre-test’ of ten questions—of course, unbeknownst to them, this is an actual citizenship test. I tell them it is simply a way for me to know where they stand as the course starts so that I can keep the material at an appropriate level. They turn it in, and we say nothing more about it until the second class.  At that point I hand back the test—as a bonus, this is a great chance to practice their names—and we go over it together.  I have them raise their hands to indicate who got ten, nine, eight right, noting those who answered six or more correctly, but still say nothing about the actual purpose of the quiz.

I then start a conversation about citizenship, currently by discussing the ongoing Birther movement’s accusations against Barack Obama and the Arizona immigration laws.  We talk about who should be allowed to be a citizen, and what the rights and responsibilities of a citizen should be.  It is only after they have voiced their existing views that I reveal that most of them (and it is always more than 80%) failed the citizenship test.  They are usually some mixture of surprised, horrified, and embarrassed at this revelation, but it promotes very open and self-reflective discussion of immigration and the naturalization process, particularly when we compare US policy to those of countries that require military service of their citizens.

As a bonus, at the end of the semester I give them the test again (with 10 new questions), and usually no more than 10% fail—giving the students a sense of accomplishment, and me some direct evidence of learning.

The official US citizenship test questions can be found at http://www.uscis.gov/USCIS/Office%20of%20Citizenship/Citizenship%20Resource%20Center%20Site/Publications/100q.pdf

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