Testing our way to a better U.S.A.

A new test for would-be American citizens was released last month, and its reviews are mixed. Although the exam will not be administered until 2008, scholars and critics are already throwing their diverse judgments into the ring of public opinion.

The revised questions are more conceptual — asking, for example, what group has the power to declare war, instead of the name of the ship on which the Pilgrims sailed across the ocean — and are generally regarded as more challenging.

In an unscientific poll conducted by the Daily, Tufts students certainly found the prospect of harder questions a bit daunting. A similarly unscientific survey carried out by the New York Times in September revealed that many current citizens had trouble with the new queries, not an unsurprising finding given the generally poor level of civics knowledge among the American public.

Our own ignorance might be reason enough to raise standards. Demanding that new citizens display a certain level of knowledge could collectively raise the bar for all Americans. Even if it doesn’t have this effect, our country will be no worse off for requiring immigrants to achieve a certain level of education. Let’s not cater to the lowest common denominator.

Claims that the test is prohibitively hard don’t hold water. It will be one full year before the questions released last month make it on to the citizenship test, giving immigrants and the groups that help them time to prepare for the rigor of the new exam.

In all likelihood, the test won’t become an impenetrable barrier to citizenship, thanks to the public nature of its questions. Instead, it will probably foster more comprehensive education and studying among those who wish to become Americans.

While we welcome this measure that has potential to raise the level of civics education among all Americans, the release of the new citizenship test only distracts from the larger problems facing immigration policy in this country. Congress’ failure to pass any meaningful immigration reform during this term has been devastating. The 12 million undocumented people living in the United States are in a limbo that is not only dangerous to their own welfare but also to the security of our country.

As Americans, we’re living off the labor of a sub-class of workers who receive less than minimum wage. Maybe this is made up for by the free education that many children who are here illegally receive (their parents aren’t paying any taxes), but that certainly is no way to do the math.

We have unlicensed drivers on the road who can’t pay for their own medical assistance when they end up in the hospital, leaving local and federal governments to foot the bill.

Our inability to deal with one of the largest predicaments facing this country could prove disastrous. A nation that cannot honestly confront its problems won’t see them go away anytime soon.

So while we’re happy to see an invigoration of civics education, it won’t do us much good if our politicians can’t rise to challenges they face. Maybe we’ll have to turn to some new American citizens who might help us solve these dilemmas.

Staff Editorial Tufts Daily Tufts University U-Wire