Immigrants fare poorly on California driver’s license tests

LA Times — Spanish-language test takers fared worse than English-language applicants on the first day a law took effect allowing people who are in the country illegally to obtain California driver’s licenses, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Only 36% of people who took the Spanish-language written test for a driver’s license received a passing score on Friday, the first day AB60 was in effect, compared with 54% of those who took the test in English, the DMV said.

Although advocates and DMV officials said more needs to be done to improve pass rates, they said they weren’t too worried, pointing out that the pass rate among Spanish-language test takers was actually higher on Friday than it had been before the new law. The average pass rate for Spanish speakers in the last six months of 2013 was 28%, according to DMV data.

Also, the pass rate for the 17,200 applicants who took the written test in any language on Friday seems to be slightly lower — at about 45% — than the average 50% general pass rate, said Jessica Gonzalez, a DMV spokeswoman.

The DMV hosted about 200 outreach meetings with immigrant advocacy groups throughout the state to help get the word out about prerequisites and how to best study for the written test.

“We’ve never launched anything like that, where we pushed people to study,” Gonzalez said. “It was the first time we’ve done that.”

Applicants must answer 30 out of 36 questions correctly in order to pass the written test.

Daisy Vieyra, a spokeswoman for a statewide coalition of immigrants’ rights advocates called Drive California, said there is room for improvement but also pointed out that California did much better than Nevada, which implemented a similar driver’s license program. There, an estimated 70% of applicants failed the written test in the first few days.

Vieyra said translated handbooks weren’t widely available and were viewed as confusing and flawed in Nevada. California did a better job at improving its handbooks translations, hiring new staff and opening new offices before the law took effect, she said.

“But I think what’s most important is that immigrants, who fought for this for over 20 years, are also heavily invested in making sure they pass this test, even if it means taking the test more than once,” Vieyra said.

The rollout of the program came after a long political battle, with some critics saying the law rewards people who broke immigration laws. Supporters said it will improve traffic safety by requiring people who are already driving to study the rules of the road.

Since Friday, more than 46,000 people who are in the country illegally have flooded Department of Motor Vehicle offices throughout California. Some even began to line up the night before.

The DMV estimates that more than 1.5-million people will apply for licenses in the next few years under the new law, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 2013.