Literacy tests Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

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.Literacy testsCitizenship;and literacy tests[literacy tests]Literacy testsCitizenship;and literacy tests[literacy tests][cat]EDUCATION;Literacy tests[03240][cat]THEORIES;Literacy tests[03240][cat]IMMIGRATION REFORM;Literacy tests[03240][cat]ANTI-IMMIGRANT MOVEMENTS AND POLICIES;Literacy tests[03240]

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.

(Library of Congress)

The [a]Immigration Act of 1917;literacy testImmigration Act of 1917 was the first major piece of federal legislation to include a literacy test, but earlier attempts to include such tests were vetoed by Presidents Cleveland, GroverGrover Cleveland, Taft, William HowardWilliam Howard Taft, Wilson, Woodrowand Woodrow Wilson in 1897, 1913, and 1915, respectively. The 1897 bill vetoed by Cleveland would have required tests of both reading and writing, while the two later bills included tests for reading only. The wording of the 1917 law, which was eventually passed, precluded admission into the United States for those who were physically able to read but did not have the requisite skills to read English or another language, including Hebrew or YiddishYiddish. The proposed test was made up of thirty to forty commonly used words, and examinees were allowed to choose the language or dialect they preferred. Although the law did not set limits on the numbers of immigrants per year or national quotas, it was clearly designed to lower immigration rates, particularly from countries with highlevels of illiteracy.

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 Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S.;and literacy tests[literacy tests]U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to revise the naturalization tests was been harshly criticized by a committee under the auspices of the National Research Council. The basis of these criticisms were both methodological and substantive, including the lack of a clearly stated rationale for the literacy tests as well as the process used to develop their content. A new naturalization test was completed for all applicants from October 1, 2009, onward. It includes units on civics and English speaking, reading, and writing.Literacy testsCitizenship;and literacy tests[literacy tests]

Further Reading
  • 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.


Dillingham Commission


English as a second language

Higher education

Immigration Act of 1907

Immigration Act of 1917

Immigration law

Intelligence testing

Language issues

Quota systems

World War I

Categories: History