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What information should we require people to know in order to become American citizens? It’s hard to say. Is it just facts about our history? Should they demonstrate an understanding of our American government and culture of freedom and community? Should they learn “facts” that are slightly wrong?

Yes. Some of the answers to the United States national citizenship test are at best deeply incomplete and at worst, wrong. And, as more and more states are requiring, or at least asking, high school students to pass the test, we should probably look into this. (hat tip to Pro Publica‘s excellent article on this issue that you should read in full.)

For exampleWhat are two Cabinet-level positions?

Included among the correct answers is the Vice President. Unfortunately, while the Vice President may attend Cabinet meetings (although that only started in the mid-20th century), technically, it’s not a Cabinet-level position. Really. Because cabinet members can only be “unelected heads of executive departments, such as the Defense Department, or the State Department.” The Vice President is elected.

How about this one“What is the supreme law of the land?”

The test says that the answer is “the Constitution,” but the Constitution itself says that three things, the Constitution, federal laws, and treaties — together “shall be the supreme law of the land.” It’s even called the Supremacy Clause.

Another question asks: Why does the flag have 13 stripes?

The test says that the answer is “because there were 13 original colonies.” Except that “the flag has 13 stripes for the 13 original states.

Just one moreWhat is the “rule of law”? 

Potential official answers include:


Unfortunately, that’s not really what the rule of law means. Most constitutional experts would have a hard time answering this question.  When he saw the available answers (when asked for that excellent Pro Publica article), “Judge Richard Posner, the constitutional scholar who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, was unhappy. ‘These are all incorrect,” he wrote me. “The rule of law means that judges decide cases ‘without respect of persons,’ that is, without considering the social status, attractiveness, etc. of the parties or their lawyers.'”

And I get why the test gives those potential answers: the rule of law is a complicated idea to explain, or even to understand, especially for people for whom English is a second (or third, or fourth) language. But maybe we shouldn’t ask the question, if it’s this complicated to answer correctly.

This is not to say that the questions in the Citizenship Test are all bad. Many are excellent. But perhaps we should think harder about the goals of the test and ensure that the answers we want are a little more complete, or the questions more precise, so our newest citizens are learning the whole truth about America. We’d expect nothing less from the SATs. Let’s be better.

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