March 17, 2006


Test Newcomer Kids, But First Give Them a Break

By Cecilia Muñoz
New America Media

Editor’s Note: Immigrant kids are being blamed for pulling down some schools’ No Child Left Behind test scores, but this doesn’t mean these kids aren’t academically up to par; they just don’t know English well enough yet. The law allows states some alternatives while the children are learning English, writes Cecilia Muñoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza’s Office of Research, Advocacy and Legislation.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—My mother, who came to this country in the 1950s from Bolivia speaking little English, tells stories about those early years when people made the assumption that she didn’t know very much of anything because she was still struggling with the language.

Decades later, my mother’s astonishing vocabulary in English, not to mention the breadth of her knowledge in a dizzying array of subjects, still draws comments from acquaintances who hear her accent and are amazed that she turns out to be so smart. Perhaps it’s human nature — we could be standing in the presence of a Nobel Prize winner, but if his English wasn’t perfect, we’d find ourselves confusing that with lack of ability overall.

My mother tells these stories with amusement. She laughs that people can be so unaware that they confuse language ability with the ability to think. But that’s the kind of erroneous assumption being made every day about kids in classrooms all over this country.

Children who are in the process of learning English are labeled “uneducable” when they are tested in subjects like math, history and science using a level of English that they cannot yet comprehend. The problem is widespread. For example, only 22% of the approximately 1.6 million students who are learning English in California tested as English proficient in 2005.

So, when we give them a test to measure how much math or science they know, we never find out the answer, because the test is in a language they’re still learning. A child may be making real progress in math or science, where the concepts transcend language, yet many children are labeled “underachievers” simply due to a language barrier. And since the ability of schools to meet federal targets under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law depends heavily on the test results of children learning English, schools could be judged as “underperforming” and could face penalties under the law.

The purpose of this testing is a good one. It provides the only real mechanism to hold schools accountable for making sure all children are moving forward. The law requires that schools show “adequate yearly progress” for all students. But in some school systems, such as the one where my daughter goes to middle school, well-meaning parents and teachers are beginning to say that we should just stop testing immigrant kids because they keep scoring low on the tests, making the entire school look bad. That would be a mistake. It would eliminate the only thing putting pressure on schools to invest in the education of English-language learner (ELL) kids.

My colleagues at the National Council of La Raza are about to publish a report that shows there is a common-sense remedy to this problem. The law allows states to test students in easier-to-understand English or in their native language. If states spent the time and energy to create these alternative assessments, they could begin to measure how much math and science immigrant kids know, rather than how well they understand the instructions on the test. This is a more practical and just way of testing children who are learning English. It would help schools meet NCLB standards and help educators more effectively target precious educational resources.

This is not to say that learning English should not continue to be of highest priority for children not proficient in the language. Schools can and should be held accountable for how well they are meeting the needs of these students. And these children should continue to be tested on an annual basis to measure their progress and help them and their schools meet high standards.

It wasn’t so long ago that Mexican American students in the Southwest and Puerto Rican children in the Northeast were routinely put into special education classes because they were not proficient in English. It took years for many of these children to realize that they could be and were, in fact, good students. But tragically for some, that realization never came.

Who knows what contributions, discoveries and inventions we lost due to ignorance and neglect? Who knows how many kids are just like my mother when she first got here, brimming with knowledge and enthusiasm, but not yet able to express herself fully in English?

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