Troubling Developments Behind the Scenes

This is your editor, Lynne Weintraub, with an update on some troubling developments related to citizenship testing and the naturalization process in general. I can't send you a link to any official USCIS announcement because USCIS is keeping things very quiet, but here's what I have learned:

  • The Office of Citizenship has already developed--in house--a list of new civics questions based on a survey of secondary social studies/history curricula from around the country. Basing the test on secondary school curriculum is a new premise--to my knowledge this has never been a criteria for formulating civics test items, and it is all but guaranteed to increase the level of difficulty--substantially.
  • The new questions are quietly being "field tested" (from what I can tell, by the Office of Citizenship--not by psychometricians in a stricly methodical process) at several adult education programs around the country.
  • Although I have no official confirmation of this, I believe that a set of reading and writing items are also being developed by a panel of educators--selected behind closed doors--by TESOL (under the direction of the Office of Citizenship). TESOL will not divulge the names of the panel members, nor whether the Office of Citizenship had a hand in selecting them, so we just have to hope that these panel members will be working to ensure that disadvantaged populations (e.g. the elderly and less educated immigrants) will not be unfairly impacted by the results.
  • It is possible that new procedures for determining what consistitutes a "pass" on the speaking test (i.e. the personal background interview) are also being revised behind the scenes. However I don't expect any policy changes to be made public, since USCIS has always been very cagey about this component of the test.
  • The new test is on the "fast track" and is expected to be launched sometime in 2020. For a brief period, applicants may be permitted to choose whether to take the new test or the old test. Since it looks inevitable that the new items will result in a lower pass rate, it's a sure bet that the big immigrant advocacy groups will contest them.

All of this presents a conundrum for citizen prep teachers. I work with elderly beginning-level (often preliterate) students who face two years or more of preparation before they can reasonably be expected to pass the current test. For now, I have no choice but to continue teaching the current test items, and hope that at least some of the content will overlap with whatever ends up in the new test. Or hope that legal wrangling will significantly delay implementation of the new test--but that's a long shot.

But bottom-line, I can assure you that once any new test gets to the implementation stage, I will develop materials for beginning-level students to give them a fighting chance with whatever challenges they are faced with.

Other worrying developments on the horizon:

  • USCIS is considering a new policy of collecting social media handles on citizenship (and other) applications. Immigrant rights groups oppose the proposed rule for several good reasons: because it is an invasion of privacy that will likely result in increased monitoring of the speech and activity of those living in the US; because it opens the door for ideological vetting based on stereotypes, particularly of Muslim communities, and because communication on social media can so easily be misinterpreted and misattributed.
  • The previous administration was committed to keeping the fee for natualization applications from increasing. It is very likely that the current administration will increase fees across the board. I don't know what the timeline for this would be, but I expect an announcement some time in the near future. I also expect the immigrant rights groups will fight such an increase tooth and nail.

I will continue to keep you posted on these and any new developments I get wind of.