America’s immigrant children and standardized testing

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The first question: Are they literate in their own language?

This is not a yes-no question. Literacy falls across a spectrum. Many educational administrators seem not to understand this fact, especially as it relates to bilingual students. New students arrive who are fully literate and at or above grade level. Other students arrive who have learned almost no written language of any kind. A few years ago, a colleague added a new student from Southeast Asia who was seventeen years old and had never previously attended any school.

Many students fall in the middle of the literacy spectrum, students who went to school in rural Mexico from 9 to 1 in the afternoon. The math teacher may have visited that school once a week. Parents may have regularly removed the student from school to help the family work in fields or markets. Children of migrant workers in particular can be expected to have canyon-sized gaps in their learning.

We need to pull most of these kids out of the standardized testing pool. As it is, after one year we throw them in the pool to drown. All the research says they need three to seven years (and sometimes more) to get their footing in a new language. We ignore that and test them after a mostly useless grace period.

The current testing situation is good for no one. Students are made to feel stupid and lost. Schools’ test scores fall, putting pressure on often already overly frantic administrators. Schools receive test scores that tell them next to nothing. Teachers end up doing damage control, trying to coax fried and frazzled students back into the learning game.

A seventh grader reading English at a first or second grade level will utterly fail a state standardized test at grade level — no matter what that student’s actual knowledge base or level of literacy in his or her home language. The test may prove deceptive to the untutored eye. Abdullah may be well-educated in Arabic, may know a great deal of math, science and history. If all he sees are story problems he can’t read, we will end up thinking he does not know math — when he may be years beyond most of the students in school in his real mathematical understanding. We won’t learn what he knows.

We will just waste his time and ours.