Parents lie on survey to identify English learners

LOS ANGELES — Nieves Garcia came from Mexico at age 6 and spent most of her elementary school years in California classified as an “English learner” even after she had picked up the language. Now a 32-year-old mother, she didn’t want her daughter labeled the same way and subjected to additional testing.

And so she lied.

When Garcia signed up her daughter for kindergarten, she answered a standard four-question survey by saying her family spoke only English at home, even though her husband doesn’t speak the language.

“I just said we spoke English, English, English and English,” Garcia said.

California education officials say it’s tough to know how many parents lie on the home language survey they are required to fill out before their children start public school. Educators say failing to identify students who need language assistance can set the children back and violate federal laws guaranteeing access to education.

Parents like Garcia fear that by acknowledging the truth, their kids will be siphoned off from native English speakers or stigmatized, and could miss out on learning opportunities.

Rosaisela Rodriguez deliberately didn’t declare that her twin son and daughter knew Spanish when she enrolled them in school, adding that most 5-year-olds are language learners, regardless of whether they are bilingual.

“If they were placed in the English language group they would have been taken out at a certain time or placed in different curriculum,” said Rodriguez, 51, of Pleasant Hill. “This was a very calculated move on my part.”

In an increasingly multilingual society, a slew of states are reevaluating how they define and identify English learners in the hope of moving toward a more unified system, education experts said.

California plans to roll out a new English language proficiency test in 2016, and is considering changing its home language survey, said Elena Fajardo, administrator of the state Department of Education’s language policy and leadership office. The survey was developed in 1980 and the state’s population and immigration patterns have changed since then.

Census data shows that nearly 44 percent of Californians age 5 and older speak a language other than English. The most common language spoken is Spanish, and 57 percent of Spanish speakers in the state say they also speak English very well.

That’s a marked shift from 1990, when less than a third of the state’s residents age 5 and older spoke another language, and less than half of Spanish-speaking Californians claimed to also speak English very well, the data shows.

Most states including California — where nearly a quarter of public school students are considered English learners — screen children initially through the home language survey and give an English proficiency test to those whose families speak another language.

In California, more than 200,000 incoming kindergarteners were given the test in 2012 and only 9 percent were deemed English proficient, according to state data. Those results have led some parents to slam the use of a single day of testing of preschoolers — and an exam some say is too difficult — to determine a child’s educational path.

Alison Bailey, a University of California, Los Angeles professor who researches bilingualism, said many state surveys including California’s don’t really consider the possibility that a child might be bilingual.

“There are competent bilingual children who would do as well in an English language environment as any other,” she said. “The initial cut of children going in to be assessed may not need to be as high as it is.”

Some parents don’t want their children classified as English learners because they fear they won’t be able to move into more advanced coursework in middle and high school due to additional language requirements. Another reason is that state data shows English learners don’t perform as well on the California High School Exit Exam — though students who were initially English learners and reclassified outperformed their English-only counterparts on the test.

Cheryl Ortega, director of bilingual education for United Teachers Los Angeles, said she’s seen Spanish-speaking parents write on the home language survey that English is spoken at home by using the Spanish word “ingles.” She said educators ought to meet with parents before they fill out the forms and explain the process to dispel concerns.

Earlier this year, Tesha Sengupta-Irving, an education professor in Orange County, registered her son for kindergarten. At the time, her parents were visiting and she was speaking to them in their native tongue, Bengali, so she wrote on her survey that the language was spoken at home.

Her son, who knew but a few words in Bengali, was tested and classified as an English learner. She said the results were ironic since she had tirelessly tried to pass the language on to him and still he spoke only English.

“That survey is the most benign looking thing ever,” said the 38-year-old, adding it was one of a dozen forms required to enroll her son in school. “It is catching too many kids.”

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