Friday, December 29, 2006

No entiendo

I don't often write about NCLB, but I'm troubled by the way it treats ESL kids. Joseph Berger had a column a few days ago addressing this issue. Is it reasonable to give the same English test to kids who don't actually know the language? I don't think so (In the early twentieth century non-English speakers were give IQ tests in English. When they failed, they were deemed to be mentally retarded). But NCLB says within one year they have to do so anyway.

Some people say it takes five years to acquire a language. Others say that's too long (For young children, it certainly is). For older kids, like those I teach, I'd say a more reasonable target is three years (though there are exceptions). The column neglects to mention that age is a pivotal factor, and that our ability to acquire language goes into a nosedive right around puberty. From reviewing NCLB dictates, I see no evidence whatsoever that who administer the law are aware of this.

Port Chester schools, the focus of this article, claim to be worried about the self-images of kids taking these tests. It seems far more likely they're worried what the inclusion of these kids will do to their statistics. It's unfortunate when concerns like that overshadow the welfare of kids, but that's an inevitable result of rampant high-stakes testing.

There is no mention whatsoever of high school kids, who've been required to take the NY State English Regents exam for years. It was absurd to raise the requirements for older kids before younger kids, and it once again showed a complete lack of familiarity with language acquisition. I can make kids pass the Regents Exam, but I could serve them far better by helping them acquire English. As things are, I endlessly drill them on a simplistic formula for earning a bare minimum score on a test, teaching them "writing skills" that are hardly appropriate for anything but the test.

Oddly, the article focuses on two kids who were actually born in the US. It's hard for me to see why they should be exempted. They should have learned English by now, particularly if they've been attending school. I regret that these kids may be "embarrassed" by their scores, but I have no idea how they spent so much of their young lives in ESL. Perhaps they were in so-called "bilingual" classes, where they got little or no exposure to English.

Unless they live in caves with no TV, or schools work full-time at keeping them there, or both, it's very hard for normal kids to avoid acquiring English--with time. But all kids need time, and NCLB needs to consider that.
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