U.S. citizenship test: Why so many of the answers are wrong.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Feb. 23 2011 5:52 PM

The Problem With Question 36

Why are so many of the answers on the U.S. citizenship test wrong?

(Continued from Page 1)

I was asked Question 8: What did the Declaration of Independence do?

Heeding my lawyer's advice, I went with the official answer: "declared our independence."

I answered six consecutive questions correctly and moved on to the language section of the exam. Native English speakers are not exempt from this section and I was asked to read aloud the following sentence: "Columbus Day is in October."

I was then asked to write a sentence in English. Remarkably, it was the same sentence: "Columbus Day is in October."

Next, I reaffirmed answers I had given on my citizenship application.

Was I a member of the Communist Party? Was I member of a totalitarian party? Am I a terrorist? Although I was born in 1970, I was asked: Between March 23, 1933 and May 8, 1945, did I work for or associate in any way with the Nazi government of Germany? Had I worked at a concentration camp?

The officer who interviewed me, Sandy Saint Louis, had to ask me the questions. But she didn't even look up or wait for my responses. She checked off "No" after each one.

She did pay attention when she asked whether I was a habitual drunkard, a polygamist, a drug-smuggler, a felon, a tax-evader.

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My paperwork was in order, my background check was complete. When the interview was over, Saint Louis pressed a large wooden seal into a red ink pad and stamped "approved" across my application. A wave of relief washed over me and my lawyer shot me a sweet smile. Ten days later, when I returned for the swearing-in, a brief and final questionnaire asked if I had engaged in prostitution since the interview. I checked "No."

On Friday, Jan. 28, accompanied by my family, I was among 160 citizens-in-waiting who filed into a 3rd-floor auditorium in lower Manhattan to be sworn in as Americans. On our seats were an American flag, a copy of the Constitution, a booklet featuring the stories of prominent naturalized Americans, and a welcome letter from President Obama.

Reading the letter, I began to cry. I had spent more than one-quarter of my life hoping to become American, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by the honor and the significance of the moment. The place I have called home for 12 years was finally claiming me, as well.

I looked around the room and saw other fortunate souls with long journeys now behind them, quietly weeping with joy.

An immigration official asked us all to stand, and to remain standing, when the name of our country of origin was called out. After he read through the names of 44 countries, we were all standing, waving our flags.

Together, we took the Oath of Allegiance and were then seated as citizens of one nation.

Everyone in the room that day had scored a perfect 100 percent on the test and, for fun, an official decided to test us all once more. Who wrote "The Star Spangled Banner"? he asked. Only a few called out "Francis Scott Key," perhaps because that question is no longer on the test. It was prominently removed four years ago.

A newly sworn-in citizen led us in the Pledge of Allegiance. We sang the national anthem and then watched a video message from the president shown at every swearing-in ceremony across the country.

"It's an honor and a privilege to call you a fellow citizen of the United States of America," Obama told us. "This is now officially your country."

There were more tears. At the end of the hour, we received certificates of naturalization and were given instructions on how to obtain U.S. passports.

My family and I left soon afterward. It was 10:30 a.m. and cold outside. We took the subway uptown. Three children got off at three different stops, headed to their schools or the library. We took the youngest up to his school. He walked in clutching his American flag and announced proudly to his teachers that "Mommy is American."

At a party that evening, I displayed the letter from Obama and laid out the flashcards. Over Sam Adams beer and mini-burgers, I spoke about the ceremony and test. The host led us all in the Pledge of Allegiance, my second of the day. Looking around the room, I realized that a significant number of my friends are journalists, writers, academics, and lawyers. It's a nitpicky crowd and during three hours of celebration they noticed additional errors in the questions.

At the end of the night, one of the catering staff gathered up the flash cards and as she held them out to me, she revealed that next month she too will take her citizenship test. I was thrilled. I closed my first day as an American citizen by handing them over to her. "Which ones did you say were wrong again?" she asked. "Just give the official answer," I said, "and you'll do fine."

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Dafna Linzer is a senior reporter at ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative newsroom. You can follow her on Twitter.

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