True confessions

On barely passing the new U.S. citizenship test.


Tim Grieve
September 28, 2007 10:30PM (UTC)

In the interest of self-reflection or self-flagellation or something, I just took the new-and-improved naturalization test unveiled this week by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

I scored 96 out of 100, which had me feeling pretty good about my bona fides as a U.S. American until I realized how the test really works. While there are 100 questions on the overall exam, any individual citizenship applicant is asked a randomly selected 10, and you need to get six right to pass. What that means: If the four questions I couldn't answer were among the 10 I happened to get, I would have received the absolute minimum passing grade.

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How can that be?

Well, let's see. Despite having sort of studied American history under a Pulitzer-winning professor and done reasonably well at one of the better law schools in the United States, I couldn't say, right off the top of my head, how many amendments the Constitution has. It turns out -- and you knew this, didn't you? -- that there are 27, the last one providing that "no law varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened."

Whatever. Not knowing the number of amendments is hardly an indictment of my civic knowledge. Nor, I thought, should I feel so bad about thinking that the Statute of Liberty sits on Ellis Island. It turns out -- and you knew this too, right? -- that while Ellis Island is part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, the statue itself sits on Liberty Island.

Trivia, I said to myself.

But then there's the small matter of Question No. 23: Name your representative. I know, I know: Of all people, I should know. And just a few months ago, I would have: I lived in Sacramento, Calif., and my representative was Doris Matsui, and her late husband, Bob, had been my representative for about a million years before that. But I moved to Bethesda, Md., in late July, and as I stared at Question No. 23, it occurred to me that I hadn't yet taken a moment to figure out which representative represents the part of Montgomery County where we live.

Pleased to meet you, Rep. Chris Van Hollen. Having humiliated myself in public, I shall never forget you.

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So that's three wrong. How'd I miss four? I'll put that law school education to use now and quibble. Question No. 68 asks for "one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for." My answer: He signed the Declaration of Independence. That's correct, of course, but it's not one of the officially sanctioned right answers: "U.S. diplomat"; "oldest member of the Constitutional Convention"; "first postmaster general of the United States"; "writer of 'Poor Richard's Almanac'"; or "started the first free public libraries."

Yeah, well, he did that thing with the kite and the key and is said to have said that beer is "proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy," too. Would a test administrator give me credit for one of those? Probably not. But I'd argue, if my citizenship depended on it, that my answer about Ben and the Declaration ought to be close enough to count.

After all, an officially acceptable answer to Question No. 8 -- What did the Declaration of Independence do? -- is "declared our independence."


Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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