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After All, Two-Thirds of ELLs Are Born in the United States

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These days, if you pay attention to issues affecting English-language learners, it's hard to overlook what used to be a little known fact about them--that most are not immigrants but rather were born in the United States.

Peter Zamora, the Washington counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, included this fact in his recent testimony on English-language learners and reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act before a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee. (For more on Mr. Zamora's views about English-language learners, see my profile of him in this week's Education Week.) He's the first person I've heard cite this fact in defense of the regulation of the U.S. Department of Education to include the test scores of English-language learners in the accountability system after they've been in the country for only one year, something he did in an interview with me for Education Week.

Interestingly, the U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings reportedly made the same argument during her visit on April 2 to the Mesa Arts Academy, a charter school in Mesa, Ariz., apparently in response to Arizona officials and others who have indicated they want more flexibility for including English-language learners in tests.

“Most of our English-language-learner students are born here. Two-thirds of these kids were born in the United States of America,” she said, according to an April 2 article in the East Valley Tribune. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable that by the end of the third grade they would be able to read on grade level in English.”

For more on U.S.-born English-language learners, see my earlier post, "Immigrant Student vs. English-Language Learner?"

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“Most of our English-language-learner students are born here. Two-thirds of these kids were born in the United States of America,” she said, according to an April 2 article in the East Valley Tribune. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable that by the end of the third grade they would be able to read on grade level in English.”

Makes sense to me.

This is a straw man argument. The issue is not where a student is born. It is related to the student's proficiency in English. Not surprisingly, the great majority of early childhood and primary school ELLs may have been born here, and most likely they will be proficient enough to take and score well on these tests by third grade.

Yet for almost half of the older students, this is not the case. Requiring them to take tests in a language in which they are not proficient is both unfair and inequitable, and to hold schools and eductators accountable for such results borders on the absurd. NCLB's accountability requirements do not take English proficiency levels into account in any manner, and to the detriment of all concerned. This is the point that needs to be understood. Focusing on birthplace over proficiency sidetracks the issue completely.

2/3 of ELL students may be U.S. born, but nearly all are likely to be children of illegal immigrants. Therefore, the costs of this program are part of the fiscal burden on the taxpayers resulting from the failure of the federal government to deter illegal immigration.

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