Harder U.S. Citizenship Test Puts Pressure On Educators

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By Kassidy Arena, Iowa Public Radio News

The test immigrants needed to ace to become a U.S. citizen has been replaced with a longer and more complicated version. This move has made it difficult not only for would-be citizens, but also for their educators.

Coming up in January, a citizenship class based in Des Moines will add another session. The class is meant for people who applied for U.S. citizenship on or after Dec. 2, which would mean they must pass a 128-question exam as opposed to the previous 100-question version.

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Lutheran Services of Iowa (LSI) has provided these classes for years, but with the new test, they feel more pressure. Now they must continue transitioning to digital classes for public health reasons, but also revamp the program. Refugee Education Coordinator Gianna Pugliese said they had to create a whole new curriculum to match the more challenging test.

“We spent a lot of time looking at the old version of the test and the new version and comparing and contrasting to see if there was any old material that we would be able to use, and there’s really not a whole lot,” Pugliese said.

On Nov. 13, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced it will make changes to the citizenship test on Dec. 2. On Jan. 5, LSI will offer classes for those students who must take the revised exam. However, people who applied for U.S. citizenship before December are still able to take the original.

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“With that short turnaround time, you have people who will be taking two versions of the test, essentially. So we want to ensure that we’re able to serve everyone in the community come January,” Pugliese said.

Pugliese listed the changes between the tests: 40 questions remain the same, 49 new questions, and about 20 have been eliminated; 39 have modified language, which means they are about the same idea, but the question is phrased in a different way. Pugliese said these are the questions that pose the biggest challenge.

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“They’re going from asking about facts to asking to explain the how and the why behind some of the ideas, so it does make it a lot more complicated,” Pugliese said.

She said immigrants are worried about the modified questions on the test because in many cases English is not their first language.

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“So even if their English is good, hearing that the test is harder, they think: Oh, my English isn’t perfect, therefore it’s not enough to pass. And so it does cause some internalized anxiety,” Pugliese said.

As an educator, Pugliese said it is difficult to figure out the most effect way to teach English Language Learners the “interesting” new phrasing, especially over Zoom.

“Even as someone who is a native English speaker, some of the phrasing is a little interesting. Like, it’s not like how I would phrase something,” Pugliese said.

On a national level, as of March 2020, the current pass rate for the exam is 90 percent. Students who take the classes with LSI have a 95 to 97 percent pass rate.

Due to the extra challenges with the new test, Pugliese said she would not be surprised if there was a “dip” in Iowa pass rates. She said since some questions have complicated grammar, it’s harder to learn and harder to teach.

“As teachers, we’d be doing a disservice to our students if we just pushed rote memorization,” Pugliese said. “We want them to understand the material. And so in order to fully understand it, you kind of have to get into some of these nitty gritty grammar pieces.”

Classes in the past have been ten weeks long. Pugliese said they will try to fit the new curriculum into that same time, but if need be, they can extend the class.

“Obviously, this will be the first time we’re teaching the new test and the first time anyone else in the nation will be teaching to the new test. So we are going to use our 10 week model and see how it goes,” Pugliese said.

The classes cost $20, but LSI helps future citizens throughout the entire process by teaming up with Iowa Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON) for legal services. Those legal services are free through LSI and JFON, although there is a $725 federal filing fee for citizenship. LSI also offers study groups outside of class time.

Once the current classroom session concludes next week, LSI will dedicate all educational resources and time to the “revamp” of the classes.

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