There is no factor more important for the assimilation of immigrants into America’s society and economy than learning English. Americans with proficient English skills earn more, are more likely to graduate with a high school diploma or go on to higher education, and even live healthier lives.
Such assimilation is critical, but it has also become increasingly rare. Two-thirds of the more than 5 million English Learners in U.S. schools belong to the second or third generation in their family to live in this country.
Federal education policy has made important gains emphasizing early English learning and including English Learners in mainstream public school accountability systems. But for most states, bottom line success rates for moving students to proficiency in English remain very low.
In California, home to more than one in three of the nation’s English Language Learners, 9.2 percent of them were successfully redesignated as proficient in English during the past year. This represents a slight drop from the previous year’s rate, but the state has made steady gains since 2002-03, when just 7.7 percent were designated. Florida and New Jersey have succeeded at reclassifying students as proficient in English at a rate three times that of California.
For those 20,000 additional students who became English Proficient, the difference is critical. Students who are successfully reclassified as proficient in English are already well on the road to educational success. Analyses have shown that, as a group, they regularly outperform most other students – including native English speakers – on standardized tests.
Reports by the California State Auditor and Legislative Analyst found that statewide, progress mastering English was too slow. The auditor’s report found that only half of English Learners beginning California schools in kindergarten will be reclassified by the sixth grade. Both reports cited financial incentives in the current system that reward schools that delay the reclassification of students.
“Basic English skills are at the very core of what these public schools teach,” said the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1974 Lau v. Nichols decision. That ruling states directly that special language programs, including bilingual education, must not interfere with “the systemic, sequential and regular instruction of all pupils in the English language.” The No Child Left Behind ACT (NCLB) adheres to that decision by requiring that English Learners be taught to the same educational standards as other children, and assessed to those standards.
Much of the current debate over federal education policy and the NCLB has focused on the challenges teaching children for whom English is not their first language. Education policymakers must continue to ensure that this critical population of students are not denied any part of such an education in the name of relaxing accountability requirements for their schools and school districts.
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