Could you pass the citizenship exam?

The new citizenship exam is supposed to focus less on trivia and more on understanding democratic values. Instead of just naming the three branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial), they may have to explain why there are three branches (balance of power).

Applicants must answer correctly six questions out of 10 chosen from a master list of 100.

It’s not hard to memorize answers to the current list of questions without understanding much about this country’s values. The new test is more challenging. But some of the proposed questions are awfully picky too. Why should new citizens have to know the minimum wage ($5.15 an hour), the highest mountain (McKinley) or which World War II general went on to become president (Eisenhower)? A few questions are confusing:

What is one thing only a state government can do?

Acceptable answers are:

A: Provide schooling and education
A: Provide protection (police)
A: Provide safety (fire departments)
A: Give a driver’s license
A: Approve zoning and land use

Most people see education, police, fire and zoning as local decisions.

When the San Jose Mercury News asked current citizens — including a law professor who was on O.J. Simpson’s legal team, a close-the-border activist, a newly naturalized immigration lawyer and San Jose’s police chief and mayor-elect — to take the test, they struggled with questions such as “how many times has the Constitution been amended?”

The test takers said the Mississippi River is the longest river in the U.S., which is listed as the correct answer. In fact, the longest river is the Missouri River.

Well, the 144 questions on the list will be tested on volunteers and winnowed down to 100. Presumably, the pickiest and most trivial questions will go, leaving questions that ask would-be citizens to learn more about their new country’s history and form of government. I don’t think it’s too much to ask.

Update: Dan Moffett suggests more right answers.

We elect a U.S. representative for how many years?

Answer the government wants: Two (2).

Other correct answers: Until they send lewd e-mails to pages, make millions off defense contracts, play free golf in Europe.

Or: Who does a U.S. senator represent?

Answer the government wants: All citizens in the state.

Other correct answers: Campaign contributors, lobbyists, people with stadium skyboxes.

It’s possible to know too much.

About Joanne


  1. “What is one thing only a state government can do?”

    Almost all of those answers are false.

    A: Provide schooling and education

    Private entities can do that. City and county entities do that. The Federal Government can do it for federal employees and the military.

    A: Provide protection (police)

    Federal, state, county, and city provide forces of different kinds.

    A: Provide safety (fire departments)

    Almost all local. I’ve never heard of a state fire department. Maybe in Rhode Island.

    A: Give a driver’s license


    A: Approve zoning and land use

    Mostly local.

    Some other possible true answers –

    A. Charge a State income tax.
    A. Have a State Lottery.
    A. Decide on laws for (felony) crimes not involving Federal property or Federal personnel.

  2. Mark Roulo says:

    “I’ve never heard of a state fire department. Maybe in Rhode Island.”

    California has the CDF, which provides fire fighting services.

    -Mark Roulo

  3. Sebastion Krakowicz says:

    What a nice country to provide such an easy avenue toward citizenship, not that it means that much. For the right to vote, however, I believe one should at least have to be born here.

  4. Mark –

    What is the CDF’s area of responsiblity? Probably rural/state-owned territory. I doubt if Palo Alto has given up their local fire department, and let decisions about the safety of multimillion dollar houses and offices be made in Sacramento.

    In any case, it is not something that “only a state can do”, so I stand by my “almost all false” statement.