What’s in a Home-Language Survey?

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 26, 2007 2 min read
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I’ve taken note over the years of the odd phenomenon that some children who are Native Americans and speak only English are identified as English-language learners.

This is how it happens. Schools are required by federal law to give parents a home-language survey when they enroll their children in school. In Indian Country, parents are likely to say on the survey that an indigenous language is spoken at home, even though it may be spoken only by a grandmother, or hardly spoken by anyone. But if they do answer the home-language survey in that way, schools are required to test the English proficiency of the child. If the child doesn’t do well on the test, he or she becomes an “English-language learner.”

So when I went out to the Navajo Nation last week to write about a Navajo immersion school, I expected to find some English-language learners in the school. But I was wrong.The Navajo immersion school in Fort Defiance, Ariz., which is part of the Window Rock Unified School District, doesn’t have any English-language learners at all. In fact, only about 200 of the 2,900 students in the whole district have been identified as English-language learners, according to Jennifer Wilson, the federal projects coordinator for the district.

Ms. Wilson told me in an interview I was conducting for Education Week that the numbers of English-language learners on the Navajo Nation dropped dramatically after the questions in the home-language survey for Arizona were simplified after passage of Proposition 203, a state ballot measure that aimed to get rid of bilingual education, in November 2000. She said that the wording of the questions and how parents answer the questions make a big difference in whether children are tested in English proficiency or not.

In Arizona, the three questions in the home-language survey aim to determine what is the primary language spoken in the home. If the primary language of a family is English, though the family may also speak a lot of Navajo at home, the child will never be tested on his or her English-language proficiency. In neighboring New Mexico, by contrast, the home-language survey recommended by the state department of education emphasizes what language or languages are commonly spoken to the child.

Ms. Wilson indicated that because of Proposition 203, there is another reason that the Navajo immersion school doesn’t have any English-language learners. Proposition 203 permits schools to provide bilingual education only to children who are already proficient in English, who are 10 years or older, or who have special needs. So apparently Navajo parents have gotten the word, she said, that if they are careful to say that English is the primary language in the home, they don’t run the risk of their child being labeled as an English-language learner--and being barred from the immersion school.

Back in 2000, I wrote about Native Americans’ concerns about Proposition 203. I invite any of you out there in Indian Country to give me an update.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.

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