Literacy tests have been a focal point of the controversy between those who would require a minimum standard of educational competence for attaining American citizenship and those who decry what they view as arbitrary restrictiveness. Literacy tests have been a key component of proposed immigration laws and a reason cited for presidential vetoes of legislation that would have instituted them.
Literacy tests as a decision-making barometer have a long heritage dating from their role during the Middle Ages as part of the process to extend “benefit of clergy” status to wayward priests. They afforded preferential treatment in a separate ecclesiastic system of justice to priests who could successfully read the “neck verse” from Psalms. This practice was abolished in the United States in 1827, but the importance of literacy as a gateway to success in mainstream American life (for both criminal-offender and law-abiding populations) has persisted into the twenty-first century.
Cartoon in a March, 1916, issue of Puck magazine lampooning the literacy test requirement in the bill that would become the Immigration Act of 1917.
The attitude of President Woodrow Wilson when he vetoed the proposed 1917 legislation restricting immigration is particularly instructive (his veto was ultimately overridden, resulting in passage of the law). Although he had been accused of holding biases against certain minority groups who he felt could not assimilate into a homogenous American middle class, Wilson strongly protested the inclusion of a literacy test. He saw it as a measure of prior educational opportunity, which could result in the rejection of citizenship applications from those with limited educational backgrounds. Their character and motivations would nonetheless render them highly desirable additions to an American middle-class “melting pot” characterized by hard work, dedication to a common set of goals, and ultimate achievement.
Since the early twentieth century, debate about how literacy tests would affect immigration law and policy has continued unabated. Empirical evidence has shown a strong link between fluency in English reading and later vocational success. An attempt initiated in 2001 by the
Elliott, Stuart, Naomi Chudowsky, Barbara Plake, and Lorraine McDonnell. “Using the Standards to Evaluate the Redesign of the U.S. Naturalization Tests: Lessons for the Measurement Community.” Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice 25, no. 1 (Fall, 2006): 22-26. McSeveney, Sam. “Immigrants, the Literacy Test, and Quotas: Selected American History College Textbooks’ Coverage of the Congressional Restriction of European Immigration, 1917-1929.” The History Teacher 21, no. 1 (1987): 41-51. Vaught, Hans. “Division and Reunion: Woodrow Wilson, Immigration, and the Myth of American Unity.” Journal of American Ethnic History 13, no. 3 (1994): 24-50.
English as a second language
Immigration Act of 1907
Immigration Act of 1917
World War I