Trial of Proposed Changes to the Current Naturalization Test
On December 14, 2022, DHS published a notice announcing that USCIS plans to conduct a nationwide trial of proposed changes to the current naturalization test. This trial includes changes to the English-speaking portion and the content and format of the civics portion of the naturalization test. That is, other portions of the naturalization test (English reading and writing test) are not included in the trial and thus are not changing.
USCIS tests the proposed changes with volunteer adult English learners in ESL classes and Lawful Permanent Residents in adult citizenship education classes. As per USCIS, it is conducting and developing the trial test to align with best practices in the field of test development and to further standardize the naturalization test.
What is the Current Naturalization Test?
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, most naturalization applicants must satisfy the following requirements by passing an examination (naturalization test):
- An understanding of the English language, including an ability to speak, read, and write words in ordinary usage (English language requirements); and
- A knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of U.S. history and of the principles and form of government in the United States as well (civics requirements).
Accordingly, the current naturalization test consists of English language test and civics test as further discussed below.
1. English Language Test
(1) Speaking test
The English-speaking ability is determined by the applicant’s answers to questions that an officer typically asks during the naturalization eligibility interview. The questions asked are taken from the Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. In addition, there is an overarching test to evaluate an applicant’s ability to understand the English language.
If the applicant understands and responds to questions, directions, or prompts during the naturalization interview, then the applicant demonstrates the ability to understand English.
(2) Reading and writing test
USCIS also evaluates a naturalization applicant’s ability to read and write words in ordinary usage in the English language. USCIS evaluates the ability through a standardized test. In the test, the applicant must read and write, respectively, 1 of 3 items correctly to demonstrate the ability.
Specifically, an applicant passes the reading test if the applicant reads aloud 1 of the 3 sentences without extended pauses. This must be done in a way that the applicant can convey the meaning of the sentence and the officer can understand the sentence. Similarly, the applicant passes the writing test if they can convey the meaning of 1 of the 3 sentences to the officer.
2. Civics Test
In addition, a naturalization applicant who is required to take the civics test must answer 6 of the 10 civics questions correctly to pass the test. A USCIS system randomly selects the test questions, and an officer administers the test orally. Applicants pass the civics test when they provide a correct answer or its alternative phrasing for 6 of the 10 questions from a test bank of 100 items.
What are the Proposed Changes to the Current Naturalization Test?
As mentioned, USCIS proposed changes to the English-speaking portion and the content and format of the civics portion of the naturalization test.
1. Proposed English-speaking Test
USCIS proposes to:
- Standardize and separate the speaking test from the Form N-400, Application for Naturalization interview;
- Align to the National Reporting System (NRS) ESL Level 3 – High Beginner*; and
- Use picture prompts that will require applicants to describe the picture using simple words and phrases.
*NRS ESL Level 3 High Beginner is the level where “individual can understand common words, simple phrases, and sentences containing familiar vocabulary, spoken slowly with some repetition. Individual can respond to simple questions about personal everyday activities, and can express immediate needs, using simple learned phrases or short sentences. Shows limited control of grammar.”
The pictures for the speaking test will come from everyday topics, including daily routines, weather, food, shopping, and school.
Trial Score and Assessment
In the proposed English-speaking trial, USCIS will score the trial test based on responses containing relevant content vocabulary and simple words and phrases.
The proposed passing score would be the same as the current English reading and writing test. That is, naturalization applicants need to answer correctly once out of a possible 3 attempts.
In the trial, USCIS would not use the Form N-400 to assess speaking and understanding. Rather, USCIS would be assessing the understanding of English through the questions or prompts given with the speaking test.
2. Proposed Civics Test
USCIS proposed to change the format and content of the civics test as follows:
- Multiple-choice format
- Updated content.
The multiple-choice format contains one correct answer choice and three incorrect answer choices. Below is a sample multiple-choice civics trial test:
Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?
- George Washington
- Thomas Jefferson
- Abraham Lincoln
- Martin Luther King, Jr
Trial Score and Assessment
USCIS is proposing to keep the following test scoring methods:
- Total number of test items to study is 100;
- Passing score is 6 out of 10; and
- The applicants eligible for the 65/20 English language exemption have a reduced 20 items to study.
What will be the Timeline?
On May 31, 2023, USCIS announced that it will conduct the trial test from early June to September 2023. After the trial test period, the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) will review the data. TAG will provide recommendations on suitability of items and a review of educational materials for the new test. USCIS will use the recommendations and trial test data to develop the final test item banks, which USCIS would announce through a Federal Register Notice.
USCIS expects the Naturalization Test Redesign Initiative to take approximately two years and be ready for implementation by late 2024.
DHS’ Federal Register Notice on the Trial Testing of Redesigned Naturalization Test for Naturalization Applications can be found here. Relevant Executive Order issued on February 2, 2021 can be found here.
 Under the INA, certain applicants may be exempt from the English language requirements and civics requirements if they either meet specific age and time as Lawful Permanent Resident thresholds, or if they cannot comply with the English language requirements or the civics requirements, or both, because of a physical or developmental disability or mental impairment.
 ESL assessments commonly use the images that include BEST Plus 2.0 (https://www.cal.org/aea/bp/) and TOEIC Bridge (https://www.ets.org/toeic/organizations/about/bridge.html).