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How to shape new U.S. citizens

Current tests miss the mark. We need to get serious about citizenship education.

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If you can identify the current president, the colors on the flag, and the date of our independence, you're halfway there. Six correct answers out of 10 questions has for the last two decades proved fitness for American citizenship.

But the test is poised to make a big transition on Oct.1. The change has been a decade in the making and represents the first major overhaul of the test since 1986.

And it won't matter.

For the last half century, the test, which in its current form is made up of 100 questions about American history and civics, has functioned much like the written portion of the driver's exam. A test of memory more than anything else, it no more indicates preparedness for citizenship than knowledge of seat-belt law indicates road readiness.

The positions on immigration as yet staked out by John McCain and Barack Obama – defending the border, reevaluating guest worker programs, addressing so-called push factors in immigration – ignore the test entirely. Consequently, the test will continue to encourage cramming rather than promoting education. As such, the candidates will have missed an opportunity to address what Americans are truly concerned with: maintaining American culture.

American immigration law has long reflected this concern over culture, keeping out different groups at different times, from the Chinese in 1882, to Eastern and Southern Europeans 40 years later. Now it's the Mexican border Americans are worried about. Earlier Americans, concerned with preserving American values and the English language, lobbied Congress for restriction.

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