Immigrant children and state tests
School officials in this working-class village tucked between the wealthy towns of Rye, N.Y., and Greenwich, Conn., would rather that neither Dayana nor Israel, both of whom were born in the United States, take the English test when it is given statewide on Jan. 8. They say they do not want such children to be embarrassed by their scores. But they also do not want those scores to embarrass the village. Theirs is a district where 90 percent of fourth graders score well enough to be regarded as proficient readers. That statistic helps the district attract well-heeled transplants from New York City.
But that statistic is also not a true reflection of the district because so many students from immigrant homes have been exempted from taking the test, even if they were born in this country. The district’s policy, which state law allows, has been to spare children from immigrant families from taking the test if they have been in the school system less than five years. That excludes about 15 percent of Port Chester’s elementary school students and 10 percent of middle-school students. And so those students have been taking easier substitute tests.
Then last June, the United States Department of Education, enforcing the No Child Left Behind law, deemed New York’s substitutes inadequate and required all students in school for more than a year to take regular tests. Tests in 21 other states face have similarly been challenged.
That was bad news for Port Chester. Officials here now predict that when the January scores are published, the proportion of proficient students will drop into the 70s. They worry that their schools will be branded in need of improvement and suffer penalties. They worry that prospective homebuyers may opt for other towns. And they worry about the students’ self-confidence.
A major problem is that the immigrant parents are often ignorant of English as well:
THERE are few issues in education more complicated and politically charged than the education of immigrant children — whether they should be immersed in English or placed in more gradual bilingual classes, and whether they should be tested in the same way as their non-immigrant peers.
There are strong arguments to be made that five years may be too long to exempt immigrant students from taking mainstream tests but that one year may be too short. Perhaps someone like Dayana, whose parents speak no English and cannot help with schoolwork, should be exempted. But perhaps Israel, who has older siblings fluent in English, should be encouraged to dip into the mainstream, not just on tests but also in the classes to which he is assigned.
Forcing every immigrant to take a grade-level English test after one year in this country can be callous. Perhaps a 6- or 7-year-old can slip into a new language in a year’s time, but experts say older children may take years to feel secure.
Catherine Snow, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who specializes in language development, points out that tests given to immigrant children who enter American schools late, say in middle school, put them at a particular disadvantage because they do not have the same cultural references as their classmates.
This is just more evidence that many immigrant groups and their children are going to be a long-term liability for the United States.
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