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For Immigrants, an Unfair Test?

July 26, 1988|STEPHEN BRAUN | Times Staff Writer

For most Americans, the essentials of government and history are drilled into memory early in life. Long after schooling is complete, most of us share at least a passingly familiar sense of the structure of U.S. government and important figures and events from our history.

But how many of us could blithely discuss the Articles of Confederation and its weaknesses? Or recite the changes sought by the Populist Party? How many could list the results of the War of 1812? Or define the word bicameral ?"

In fact, these are the kinds of questions covered in textbooks issued last week by the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service--textbooks which will be used by immigration examiners to devise tests to determine which immigrants qualify for the second phase of the amnesty program. The books will also be used as the basis for courses in American history and government that applicants can take instead of the INS examination.

Too Difficult?

While the INS insists the depth of the material will not be a hardship for amnesty applicants, immigrant advocates have complained that it sets a standard for immigrants that few American citizens could measure up to.

In an attempt to see how difficult the INS text might be, The Times assembled a test of 10 typical review questions straight from the six government textbooks and put them to four people with a vested interest in amnesty education.

The test-takers were Paul Gilbert, an INS official who has worked on the requirements; Domingo Rodriguez, supervisor of the Los Angeles Unified School District's amnesty education program; Richard K. Garretson, a history teacher at Long Beach Polytechnic High School; and Pamela Hartmann, who is teaching amnesty applicants at the Evans Community Adult School in Los Angeles. The questions and answers (which appear in a box below) varied in difficulty from the number of years in a senator's term to the goals of the Populist Party in the late 1800s.

Reflecting perhaps their better-than-average knowledge of American history and government, all four scored well. Garretson and Gilbert answered all 10 questions correctly; Rodriguez missed one (the year the U.S. Constitution was written) and Hartmann, who normally teaches English to immigrants, missed two (the goals of the Populists and the flaws in the Articles of Confederation). But as they discussed the questions, the four differed sharply over the usefulness of the program and the grasp of American government and history that immigrants should be required to have.

The INS' Gilbert said that the agency's system of education requirements makes it easy for most immigrants to succeed in this phase of the amnesty program. In fact, applicants under 16 or over 65, and anyone who has spent a year in a certified U.S. school, are exempt from the requirements. The rest can choose between an oral test administered by an INS examiner, a standardized test or the option of taking a 30-hour English-language, history and civics course.

But schoolteacher Hartmann said she doubts that her 30-hour students would be able to answer even the simplest of the 10 questions asked in the sample test because they lack basic English language skills. "When their 30 hours are done, they might be able to say in English, 'This is a book.' They might know the colors of the flag, who Christopher Columbus was, who the Pilgrims were--but not much more than that."

Amnesty Classes

At the Evans school, she said, there are 50 classes for amnesty applicants, of which only three cover history and government in any great detail. The rest are English comprehension classes which, like hers, barely touch on civics and history, she said. "I have one lady in my class who doesn't even know how to hold a pencil," she said. "It's a farce to think they will be able to discuss or answer questions about the Articles of Confederation anytime soon."

Garretson, who is used to teaching gifted students, believes that immigrants should eventually be required to have some familiarity with topics like the Articles of Confederation. But he was scornful of the way the questions are worded. "A word like bicameral is thoroughly unnecessary," he said. "It's more than adequate for a student to know we have a two-house legislature. Beyond that, it's trivia."

Gilbert maintained that even the most detailed elements of the textbooks are at a level most seventh- or eighth-grade American students would understand. But the school district's Rodriguez replied that while the books may be at a seventh- or eighth-grade reading level, the difficulty of the civics and history questions approach a second-year college level.

Continuing Education

Rodriguez said that he is hopeful that as many as 70% of the immigrant students who take the 30-hour courses will continue on with their education and perhaps make good use of the material in the INS text.

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