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Fact Check: Do the Feds Require a Home-Language Survey?

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 18, 2010 2 min read
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For years I’ve thought that the federal government requires school districts to administer a home-language survey to parents when they enroll a child in school to determine whether a language other than English is spoken at home. I wrote this assumption in a blog entry about home-language surveys soon after I launched this blog three years ago.

I was wrong. I got clarification on this issue while reporting for an in-depth article about the use of home-language surveys, “Home-Language Surveys for ELLs under Fire,” published at edweek.org this week.

U.S. Department of Education officials informed me that federal guidance requires school districts to have some procedure for identifying and testing English-language learners, but it doesn’t specifically require that a home-language survey be used. Nevertheless, “enforcement experience” from the office for civil rights of the Education Department shows that a home-language survey is the tool most commonly used by school districts as part of the identification process, they told me.

I’m not apparently the only one who was confused on this matter. Some people over at ETS, the test development organization, also had made the same assumption that I had--that the federal government requires a home-language survey.

A study guide published by ETS in 2008 for anyone who plans to take the Praxis test in teaching English to speakers of other languages includes a sample test question stating that “federal law requires that schools administer a home-language survey.” The student is asked to select an answer that gives the purpose for the home-language survey, which is to determine whether “a language other than, or in addition to, English is spoken in the students’ home.”

I called Tom Ewing, the director of government and external relations for ETS, and asked him what the basis was for that sample test question. After an investigation, he replied by e-mail: “It appears the federal government requires that schools determine other languages used at home other than English, but does not mandate that one particular survey be used.”

Ewing notes that the sample questions in the guide are prepared only for study purposes and have never appeared on an actual ETS test. He also added that a new study guide on ELL issues will soon be released and the particular question about home-language surveys isn’t included in that guide.

Let me note here that according to Quality Counts 2009, 49 states have adopted a home-language survey for identifying ELLs. I found in my reporting that the questions on those surveys vary from state to state and even sometimes within states. Quality Counts 2009 says 17 states permit the use of at least three different ELL-identification criteria, which may also include interviews with parents or students, evaluations by teachers, and consideration of grades or other aspects of a student’s educational background.

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