The citizenship test is pass/fail; there’s no blue ribbon for acing it


The civics portion of the United States citizenship test is an oral exam wherein you must correctly answer six out of ten questions. One of my friends studiously prepared for his examination, going so far as buying a CD with the questions and answers and listening to it every day during his commute to and from work.

At last, the day arrived, and my friend went in to take his citizenship examination. The examiner led him to an office, and the two of them sat down for the test.

"Who was President during World War II?"

— Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"Correct. How many justices are there on the Supreme Court?"

— Nine.

"Correct."

And so on. Question 3, correct.

Question 4, correct.

Question 5, correct.

Question 6, correct.

And at that point, the examiner said, "Congratulations. You passed. There is a naturalization ceremony in two hours. Can you make it?"

My friend was kind of surprised. Wasn't this a ten-question test? What about the other four questions?

And then he realized: You only have to get six right. He got six right. How well he does on the remaining four questions is immaterial.

My friend was hoping to get a perfect score of 10/10 on the test, or at least to find out whether he could get all ten right, just as a point of personal satisfaction, but of course the examiner doesn't care whether this guy can get all ten right. There's no blue ribbon for acing your citizenship test. It's pass/fail.

Bonus chatter: My friend hung around for two hours and was naturalized that same day. He said that for something that could have been purely perfunctory (seeing as the people who work there have done this hundreds if not thousands of times), the ceremony was was quite well-done and was an emotionally touching experience.

In case you hadn't noticed, today is Constitution Day, also known as Citizenship Day. One of the odd clauses in the legislation establishing the day of observance is that all schools which receive federal funding must "hold an educational program" on the United States Constitution on that day. This is why students at massage therapy schools and beauty schools have to watch a video of two Supreme Court justices.

Comments (35)
  1. pc says:

    If I recall correctly, the written test for getting a driving Learner's Permit (in Massachusetts at least) works similarly, where once you've gotten enough correct answers for a passing score the computer stops the test.

  2. Boris says:

    But instead of quizzing the applicant about trivia that anyone can look up on their smartphone, why not seek proof of actual involvement in "citizeny" activities? Otherwise the questions become ceremonial as well.

  3. Mc says:

    @Boris:  They've got to demonstrate they know how to load and fire a gun  etc.?    :-)

  4. DWalker says:

    I would have to think a while to remember who was president during WW II (the war after the one to end all wars).  And I was born in this country and have lived here for 50-some years.  WW II was a little before my time, but we did study it in school.

  5. I wonder if they would have accepted Truman as an answer to the first question.

  6. Mr Cranky says:

    It's the American way!  Surely he would also stop once 4 answers were incorrect.

    Raymond previously covered the fact that baseball games are often only 8.5 innings, and of course playoff series often don't go the full number of games.  The only inconsistency is that the Reds have to play 10 more games this year for very little purpose :-(.

  7. GWO says:

    "The only inconsistency is that the Reds have to play 10 more games this year for very little purpose :-(."

    @MrCranky  I'm sure some of those games are against teams still in a Pennant / Wild Card race, so they do have some purpose, just not for the Reds.

    // Go M's

  8. Anonymous says:

    These days they give you a book and the CD with the questions and answers when you go for the biometrics appointment.

  9. Nick says:

    It seems like you all have the wrong idea of the test – it's not about memorizing facts, it's about showing that you were willing to do research on the country you want to be a full-fledged citizen of. Just because you're given the questions and answers ahead of time doesn't mean you'll get that reference later. Once you're a citizen, you don't really need to know what the stripes are red and white, generally. But if you want to self-select only the driven, a trivia quiz isn't the worst way to do it.

  10. Untested says:

    Must the students attend a presentation, or is it just that the school must offer such programs? At this point, the proportion of schools not receiving federal funds must be pretty small, and I hadn't heard of the requirement. But I don't see it as burdensome for aspiring massage therapists and beauticians to see such a presentation once a year: they are, if not citizens then at least residents, with more of their days spent away from the workplace than in it.

    Quibbles aside, congratulations to your friend, and kudos to those who managed the ceremony.

    (And one of these days the Education Section of the NY Times is sure to get around to American history for its quiz: he can get his chance at a perfect score again.)

  11. The last time I looked at the questions for the US citizenship test I think I knew most the answers simply because of general knowledge.

  12. Boris says:

    @Mc: not something I'd joke about, and one of the reasons I much prefer Europe.

  13. Nico says:

    @Maurits: I wondered the same thing.  Based on the study booklet of the 100 questions (http://www.uscis.gov/…/100q.pdf), the actual question is:

    > Who was President during the Great Depression and World War II?

    To which the only answer is: (Franklin) Roosevelt

    It would be interesting to see how many of those questions your average natural-born citizen knows offhand.

  14. Myria says:

    These two questions from the PDF seem contradictory to me:

    Q: What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?  A: The Bill of Rights.

    Q: How many amendments does the Constitution have?  A: Twenty-seven.

    The 27th Amendment makes the Bill of Rights have 11 Amendments.

  15. Wyatt says:

    @Myria

    The first 10 of 27 amendments to the US Constitution are considered the Bill of Rights.

  16. Myria says:

    @Wyatt: Even though the 27th is on the Bill of Rights document in the National Archives?

  17. MB says:

    I got the full 10 questions on my test (and got all of them correct). Afterwards, I asked the gent how many I needed to get right and he grinned and said "six, but I wanted to see if you were going to answer any of them incorrectly." I should point out that I was the first one to be tested by him that day. Then came the written part where he asked me to write a sentence in English. I asked him what he wanted me to write and he gave me a sentence that was grammatically incorrect! Yes, I did write exactly what he said.

  18. Rob says:

    When I did my citizenship test the examiner *did* go the full ten questions even though I'd gotten the first 6 already.  I told him I was disappointed the question about the names of the original 13 colonies didn't come up – I'd memorised that one!

    Of my 10 questions, the first three were 'what colour are the stripes on the flag?', 'what colour are the stars on the flag?' and 'what colours are used on the flag?'.  Got him on that one – I pointed out that some flags have gold edging/tassels!  At least the flag questions explained why there was no flag in his office!

    And then came the English test – I was asked to explain what was meant by the phrase 'he wanted to talk to his boss'.  Not much scope for literary analysis there!  Given that (Australian) English is my native language he let that one go…

  19. Simon says:

    Seriously, what's the point in asking questions about the US flag? Even the most rabid anti-American types could answer those, if only because they've burned a few flags…

  20. Kevin says:

    @Myria: The term "Bill of Rights" has meant the first 10 amendments for more than 200 years.  The document you're referring to also has a pending amendment, never ratified, regarding the apportionment of the House of Representatives.  It certainly is not part of the Bill of Rights.

  21. cheong00 says:

    @Maurits: I'd probably have replied "Truman" too. He's famous for the decision of approving the use of atomic bomb to bomb Japan.

  22. meh says:

    @Mr Cranky "It's the American way! Surely he would also stop once 4 answers were incorrect."

    Well to be fair he'd have to stop after five answers were incorrect (since one is allowed to get four wrong). But maybe you meant that Americans are lazy and so one would just assume that if the person got the first four in a row wrong then the chance of him/her acing the next six is too slim to bother with.

  23. Gabe says:

    I never realized that there were 12 amendments originally presented, of which only the 10 known as the Bill of Rights were initially ratified. When the 11th one of those was ratified in 1992, it was the 27th amendment.

    So you can actually say that the 27th Amendment is the 11th amendment in the Bill of Rights.

  24. Engywuck says:

    only 100 questions? In germany (since 2009) there are 300 federal (plus 10 for the state you're living), from which 33 are asked (17 correct to pass). On the other hand it's multiple choice… If you speak german and want to try them, here's a site that claims it has all 300 federal questions: http://www.sueddeutsche.de/…/Einb%C3%BCrgerungstest

  25. mikeb says:

    This reminds me of one of my favorite bits from the Simpsons, when Apu takes his citizenship exam (quotes stolen from snpp.com):

    =========================

    Proctor: All right, 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,  there were economic factors, both domestic and inter–

    Proctor: Wait, wait… just say slavery.

  26. Neil says:

    Since when did 6/6 not count as a perfect score?

  27. Danny says:

    @cheong00: " I'd probably have replied "Truman" too. He's famous for the decision of approving the use of atomic bomb to bomb Japan."

    Japan got just nice, recovered and currently is a very powerful economic power. Not the same can be said about the fact that Truman lacked the vertical spine to make Stalin held his word given at Yalta to FDR, during the Potsdam Conference, which eventually led to Stalin controlling half of Europe, and the Cold War. Those decisions can be seen even these days, where Putin couldn't care less about Western sanctions for Ukraine affair and winter is coming, meaning he will cut the natural gas to Western Europe which in turn will make those leaders bow to Russia, and with their influence on US, will make Obama tone down the actual sanctions and all we will see will be only political speeches, while Crimea will be part of Russia. So I'd say Truman is more famous for that then the atomic bombs.  

  28. Rick C says:

    @Myria "Even though the 27th is on the Bill of Rights document in the National Archives?"

    Yes, because the 27th wasn't passed at the same time.

  29. Kai says:

    I never understood the U.S. fascination with tests which are

    A. Multiple Choice

    B. Has a known catalog of questions which are easily memorized

    C. Can only be aced by memorizing the answers because the answers are completely irrelevant for the proficiency you are supposed to show

    D. All of the above

    [I agree that it is very strange. "People should have to pass a test before they get X. But don't make the test too hard, because I want to make sure I can pass!" -Raymond]
  30. Nico says:

    @Kai

    Often (but not always I'm sure) the purpose of such tests has less to do with "verify proficiency of a subject" and is more about "require study of a subject".  Tests such as the nationalization test, written drivers license test, or any number of "pop quiz" tests in school are just designed to force a person to actually study the covered material, and then try to determine if they actually did.

  31. Brian Marshall says:

    When my father went for his Canadian Citizenship test, there was only a single question.

    Judge: Okay, Mr. Marshall, what does the Senate do?

    Dad: Do you want to know what they are supposed to do, or what they actually do?

    Judge: It's seems you're well versed on the senate. Next!

    At the time I wasn't sure whether to be embarrassed or extremely proud. Definitely the latter now…

  32. Joshua says:

    [I agree that it is very strange. "People should have to pass a test before they get X. But don't make the test too hard, because I want to make sure I can pass!" -Raymond]

    Well, most political tests I propose tend to be easy.

    Driving: Written test in English, lowest grade level reasonably available, multiple choice (so it's not a requirement to write English). The intended reason is to be able to read the one-off road sign such as "X lane closed, detour left here, right Y street, right Z drive in 3 miles".

    Voting: Basic reading comprehension test involving identifying facts in an English newspaper article, multiple choice (in this case so that any political bias in the test can be quickly spotted and removed). As it stands, the only way to get even balanced (actual unbiased is too hard to find) political discourse is written English and I see no hope of changing it.

    Voter-ID: Any government-issued photo-ID, even if expired.

  33. bzakharin says:

    How is studying answers to specific questions constitute ""study of a subject"? If I memorize the answer to "who was the president during World War II" this doesn't mean that

    *I know how he was involved in the war

    *Who he was

    *What World War II is (remember, this is hypothetical)

    On the other hand, the NJ written driver's test does not have a published list of answers (at least not an official one). I had to study the actual manual, which I guess accomplished the goal it set out to do. That doesn't mean I remember what the fine is for the second offense of not stopping when the school bus is making a stop, nor do I think I should (it might not even be the same as it was when I took the test). And I got stopped by police (let off with a warning though) for breaking a law that was on the books at the time I took the test, but wasn't in the manual.

  34. KC says:

    In NH, the written test for your driver's license is a computerized multiple choice test, and the software stops once you get enough correct.  My kids were thrilled!

    KC

  35. Evan says:

    "Basic reading comprehension test involving identifying facts in an English newspaper article, multiple choice. … As it stands, the only way to get even balanced (actual unbiased is too hard to find) political discourse is written English and I see no hope of changing it."

    Why English? Do you think that news (even US news) isn't distributed in other languages? Or maybe you think it's too biased. Have you evaluated it? Or seen some evaluation?

    From what I can tell your test is neither necessary nor sufficient for showing political aptitude: it is possible to gain that without understanding English, and just because you understand English doesn't mean you actually follow any news.

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