Talk about teaching to the test

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The NYT covers the kabuki theater over the new citizenship test. Predictably, those opposed to immigration said the old test was too easy and those in favor say the new test is too hard:
The redesign of the test, the first since it was created in 1986 as a standardized examination, follows years of criticism in which conservatives said the test was too easy and immigrant advocates said it was too hard.

The new questions did little to quell that debate among many immigrant groups, who complained that the citizenship test would become even more daunting. Conservatives seemed to be more satisfied.


In a statement today, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, one of the groups consulted in shaping the new test, denounced it as "the final brick in the second wall." The group said the test included "more abstract and irrelevant questions" that tended to stump hard-working immigrants who had little time to study.

But several historians said the test appeared to be fair.

"People who take this seriously will have a good chance of passing," said Gary Gerstle, a professor of American history at Vanderbilt University. "Indeed, their knowledge of American history may even exceed the knowledge of millions of American-born citizens."

John Fonte, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, called the new test "a definite improvement." But he said it should have included questions about the meaning of the oath of allegiance that new citizens swear. "I would like to see an even more vigorous emphasis on Americanization," he said.

This whole debate is a little hard to take seriously because the test only has 100 questions, all of which are published in their entirety along with the answers. In order to pass, you need to get 6 right out of 10 chosen by the examiner (this is unchanged from the previous test.) Whatever the questions, this doesn't exactly require deep knowledge. Given this format, it's pretty hard to take seriously objections that it's somehow too hard to pass. I'm pretty confident with a day or two to prepare I could pass a similar test on the history of Burkina Faso, or for that matter, Epsilon Eridani.

On the other hand, given this format it's pretty hard to get excited about claims that it's somehow too easy to pass—that somehow we're passing people who don't understand American civics—even with the old test. A test with 10,000 questions rather than a hundred would be a lot more plausible. It would at least preclude memorizing all the questions.


While there is some truth to the point that it probably isn't all that hard to prepare for, my general objection to this is that immigrants are being singled out. I'd like to move this from being an immigration test to being a voting license test, and make everyone take it. The key quote here is, "Indeed, their knowledge of American history may even exceed the knowledge of millions of American-born citizens."

Whether or not it is too hard for the average person would then become quite clear. My only worry about a nationwide voting test is that the questions would be rigged to be harder to certain demographics.

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