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The civics test for US naturalization

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2017

Among the requirements that all immigrants must meet to become a naturalized US citizen is a civics test covering US history and government. The test contains 100 questions, 10 of which are verbally posed by a Citizenship and Immigration Services officer…no multiple choice. Applicants must answer 6 out of 10 correctly to pass. The questions include:

What is the supreme law of the land?
What is freedom of religion?
What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?
The House of Representatives has how many voting members?
What is the name of the President of the United States now?
Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the states. What is one power of the states?
What are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy?
The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.
When must all men register for the Selective Service?
Name one war fought by the United States in the 1800s.
What was one important thing that Abraham Lincoln did?
Why does the flag have 13 stripes?
Before he was President, Eisenhower was a general. What war was he in?
Name one of the two longest rivers in the United States.
Name two national U.S. holidays.

You can take a 20-question multiple choice test on the USCIS website or if you want to see how many you can answer out of 100 with no multiple choice, I knocked up a Google Sheets version here — access is read-only but you can make a copy and take the test by choosing File / Make a copy… from the menu. Here’s a full list of the questions and suggested answers to check your work. Without studying, some of the questions are more difficult than you’d think, particularly if your last political science and American history classes were 25 years ago in high school.

And like all tests, this one is imperfect.1 In 2001, Dafna Linzer wrote about her test-taking experience.

Then there is Question 12: What is the “rule of law”?

I showed it to lawyers and law professors. They were stumped.

There are four acceptable answers: “Everyone must follow the law”; “Leaders must obey the law”; “Government must obey the law”; “No one is above the law.”

Judge Richard Posner, the constitutional scholar who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, was unhappy. “These are all incorrect,” he wrote me. “The rule of law means that judges decide cases ‘without respect of persons,’ that is, without considering the social status, attractiveness, etc. of the parties or their lawyers.”

The Simpsons lampooned this aspect of the test in 1996 when Apu answered a question about the Civil War2 during his civics test.

Examiner: “Alright, here’s your last question: What was the cause of the Civil War?”

Apu: “Actually there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, economic factors both domestic and international…”

Examiner: “Hey, hey…”

Apu: “Yep?”

Examiner: “Just… just say ‘slavery’”.

Apu: “Slavery it is, sir.”

This would never happen in a million years, but I would love for someone to sit down with Donald Trump to see how many of these he could answer. Like I said, if you haven’t studied, some of the questions are not that easy. But surely the President of the United States should be able to get almost all of them correct…

  1. I was always good at tests in school because I learned early on the difference between the correct answer and the answer you’re supposed to give. Most of the time, they’re the same but not always.

  2. The question from the actual test reads “Name one problem that led to the Civil War” and the three suggested answers are “slavery”, “economic reasons”, and “states’ rights”.

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