How do citizenship tests work?

I’ve found it curious lately to follow the Howard Government’s proposal for an Australian citizenship test. One of the more unusual experiences I had when I was in the US was volunteering to help people study for the American citizenship test. Since this is akin to the kind of test that Howard is proposing for Australia, it seems relevant to the debate downunder.

The US test is a very rigorous one (sample questions here). It is drawn from a base of 100 questions, including things like “Name the original 13 states”, “Who wrote the Star-Spangled Banner?” and “Name the two senators from your state”. My guess is that most red-blooded Americans would fail it.

One of the people who came to the Harvard session was an elderly Chinese man, who had been working on the test for about three months, so he could get citizenship to sponsor his son to come to America. As he and I went through the questions, it turned out that he didn’t know any English. Instead, he had rote-learned all the questions and answers by sound. So when I said “When was the Declaration of Independence adopted?”, he replied “Thomas Jefferson” (the answer to the next question: “Who was the main writer of the Declaration of Independence?”). We then spent the next 5 minutes focusing on the difference between “when” and “who”.

The point of the anecdote is that if you’re going to run a large-scale citizenship test, you can only test facts. And a test of facts may not actually tell you much about whether you really identify with a nation’s values. Indeed, it may not even tell you whether you’ve managed to learn English.

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7 Responses to How do citizenship tests work?

  1. Christine says:

    Sample questions for the Canadian test are here:

    http://www.yourlibrary.ca/citizenship/

    Most Australians should be able to pass it, except for the names of Governors General and the like. The actual test was easier: most of the group I was with finished the multi-guess quiz in under 10 minutes. Some very silly questions on it, such as this test of grade 10 economics:

    What are the three main types of industry in Canada?
    a. Natural resources, tourism and services.
    b. Tourism, services and manufacturing.
    c. Natural resources, tourism and manufacturing.
    d. Natural resources, manufacturing and services.

    And: Give an example of how you can show responsibility by participating in your community.
    a. Mind your own business.
    b. Have a party.
    c. Keep your property tidy.
    d. Join a community group.

    (I think the answer to this is d? But the others seem good too … )

    But the best were:
    Name six responsibilities of citizenship.
    a. Get a job, make money, raise a family, pay taxes, mow your lawn, vote.
    b. Vote, join a political party, get a job, obey the law, drive safely, pick up litter.
    c. Care for the environment, don’t litter, pay taxes, obey the law, help others, respect others.
    d. Vote, help others, care for our heritage and environment, obey Canada’s laws, respect the rights of others, eliminate injustice.

    And:
    What is Canada’s system of government called?
    a. Dictatorship.
    b. Parliamentary government.
    c. Military Rule.
    d. Communism.

    At a recent party to celebrate granting of Canadian citizenship to my son’s friend’s mother, a group of us took the play on-line test. All got 18/20 or above. And then the kiddies (3-6 year olds) sang O Canada. Because the adults didn’t know the words.

    So yeah, a test is a great idea. Whoo hoo.

  2. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Australian already has a citizenship test. It consists of two questions that must be answered in English (or strine). All the government is proposing is to expand the number of questions, and not advise the exact questions in advance.

  3. Coca-Cola-Nut says:

    Does that mean we won’t know what it takes to be Oztrayan?

  4. The citizenship test debate is closely related to the debate about teaching civics in schools, and indeed asking people if they support such teaching would be a useful proxy in this debate, since it goes to the core issue of whether or not everyone should have some basic knowledge of the country’s history and institutions without getting some people excited about ‘racism’.

  5. Christine says:

    Look, it’s all a great idea to know something about the country you live in, its history and its system of government. But there’s a real question as to whether a computer-based multiple choice test, or indeed any test, is going to ensure this. I think any implementable test will not.

    In Australia, there are already requirements that you understand basic English (or do a course); that you understand the privileges and the responsibilities of citizenship. This is supposed to be determined in an interview. The discussion paper (http://www.citizenship.gov.au/news/DIMA_Citizenship_Discussion_Paper.pdf )
    pays a lot of attention to Canada. But as far as I can tell, Canada has weaker citizenship requirements than does Australia. Canada has no interview requirement, unless you fail the multi-guess test, in which case they interview you to check why and make sure the first screen didn’t make a mistake. As Andrew points out, it’s easy enough to pass a test without really understanding the language. The required passing score in Canada is 60%, and the questions make it close to impossible not to pass. You do have to get 3 questions perfect, but these are all about basic citizenship rights (voting, etc). There are no questions about values, nor is there any mention of values in the citizenship pledge in Canada, unlike Australia (there is still mention of loyalty to the Queen, though, which caused me severe pain).

    The discussion paper on the Australian test says it would help to provide assurances that migrants understand common values such as: “the spirit of a fair go”; and “mutual respect and compassion for those in need”. You simply cannot reasonably test these. That silly question I quoted above on the responsibilities of Canadian citizenship including ‘to eliminate discrimination’ is exactly the sort of rubbish you’d have to put in. And that’s even without bothering to think about whether these are really common values.

    As for knowledge of the country’s history, it is actually extremely difficult to learn this stuff as an outsider. I am struggling with Canada, and that’s after I had to tutor at the university level in Canadian economic history (read many essays on the fur trade: “The beaver is a large North American mammal …”), getting to devote most of my work time to learning about Canadian institutions and actually enjoying thinking about politics. I can’t see how people who are struggling to support themselves and raise a family while not speaking English well could possibly manage a serious test. (Having school-age children might help, though.)

    So no, another test is not necessarily racist. But it’s either going to be (a) pointless; or (b) de facto discriminatory, in that rich English speakers will be fine but poor non-English speakers won’t. Plus, it’s not clear in what way the current system is deficient, nor what the benefit is in denying citizenship (even temporarily) to someone who can’t remember why Australia’s colours are green and gold, or whatever. And Andrew N, if it’s about public perceptions of migrants, Howard or whoever could point to what the existing test does do and how that is superior to Canada’s test, say. That he’s doing the opposite does not support the theory you propose on your blog.

    I just can’t see what the benefit of adding another written test will be in practice.

  6. derrida derider says:

    Bah, humbug – this is just cheap politics. The government is concerned with rallying its partisans in the kulturkampf and with dogwhistling to Tamworthites rather than in having any practical effect.

  7. Geoff R says:

    In the long-run labour shortages, declining birthrates and high immigration mean an increasingly non-Anglo population. Bad electoral news for conservatives (signs of this already in US), hence the idea of getting in migrants but making it harder for them to vote. Cynical interpretation. But we also see a conservative faith in the power of the state to engineer social values and norms that makes most of the left look Freidmanite.

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