Home-Language Surveys for ELLs Under Fire

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 23, 2010 9 min read
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A growing chorus of people are saying that some school districts are overzealous in categorizing students as English-language learners in the aim of complying with federal and state laws to ensure that children of immigrants get extra help with English. They contend that the information requested on the home-language survey that parents are commonly asked to fill out when they enroll their child in a public school can be misleading or misused.

Christina Chum, a parent of a 5th grader in Orange County, Fla., for example, says her son was mistakenly categorized as an ELL after she said on a home-language survey that Spanish was sometimes spoken in their home. She’s asked district officials to lift the label for her son, whose first and primary language is English, but she says they tell her state law doesn’t permit them to do so, unless her son proves on a test that he knows English.

In Orange County and many other districts across the country, once a student is designated as an ELL, the label is not readily lifted.

Lori Phanachone, now a freshman at Iowa State University, was suspended for three days from Storm Lake High School in Iowa last school year after she refused to take an English-proficiency test. The honor student declined to take the exam as a protest against the Storm Lake district’s labeling of her as an ELL solely because she had said on a home-language survey that she spoke Lao, the language of Laos, at home. The district has since cleared the suspension from her record and put in place a comprehensive policy on how to identify ELLs.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, state education officials have changed the home-language survey there to ask only one question rather than three, saying they want to cut down on the overidentification of students as ELLs. The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights is investigating a complaint that contends, however, that by simplifying the home- language form, Arizona is discriminating against children who may be dominant in English but still need extra help to gain proficiency in it.

‘Treated Differently’

States differ in whether they permit parents to remove a child who has been identified as an English-learner from special English instruction, such as English-as-a- second-language classes. The federal No Child Left Behind Act permits parents to remove their children from special English classes, but it also says that states’ laws on the matter take precedence over the federal law. Arizona, California, Iowa, and Texas let parents waive special instruction in English. New Mexico and New York do not.

Under the NCLB law, school districts are required to assess ELLs each year with an English-language-proficiency test, an exam that other students don’t have to take. Districts vary in whether they are willing to honor a parent’s demand not to give the test.

Christina Chum helps her son, Moses Abreu, 10, with homework at the family’s home in Orlando, Fla.

That was a battle that Ms. Chum was willing to fight after she learned that Princeton Elementary School in Orlando, Fla., considered her son, Moses Abreu, now 10, to be an ELL. When he was a 3rd grader, she enrolled him in Killarney Elementary School in the 175,000-student Orange County district, and checked a box on a home-language survey that said a language other than English was spoken at home.

Ms. Chum was born in Thailand of Cambodian parents and her first language is Khmer, but her dominant language is now English. Her husband is bilingual in Spanish and English, but the couple speak exclusively in English with their two children.

Because Ms. Chum marked that Spanish was spoken in the home, Moses was given an English-language screening test, which he didn’t pass. His mother said he failed the test because its purpose wasn’t explained to him and he didn’t take it seriously. She soon took Moses out of school for reasons not related to his status as an ELL and home-schooled him for two years.

This past fall, when Ms. Chum enrolled Moses in 5th grade at Princeton Elementary, she filled out another home-language survey. But this time, she didn’t say that a language other than English was spoken at home. The school system, though, has a policy of referring to data from previous schools in Florida attended by a student, so Moses was still considered an English-language learner.

Ms. Chum got a letter in the mail about services for ELLs. That’s when she realized she hadn’t understood the purpose of the home-language survey. She now wants the district to disregard her answers on it and the label of ELL to be lifted from her son immediately.

“He’s been treated differently because of a question I answered. It almost seems like racial profiling,” she said. “I have two issues: [district officials’] not informing parents what those questions are for, and that I can’t remove my son out of the program—not just the services, but the program.”

Ms. Chum doesn’t want Moses to be given any more English-proficiency tests. She said district officials agreed that he doesn’t have to take the English-language-proficiency test or special classes to learn English, but that he will have to show he’s proficient in English on Florida’s reading exam for regular students before he can lose the ELL label.

Ms. Chum maintains that the district wants to count Moses as an ELL so it can get extra funding that Florida provides for each ELL student. A district spokeswoman didn’t comment on the case, citing privacy laws, but said the district has had its procedures for identifying and serving ELLs approved by the Florida education department.

Iowa Case

Lori Phanachone’s troubles in Storm Lake, Iowa, also stemmed from information put on a home-language survey.

When she registered as a 10th grader at Storm Lake High School, she said she spoke Lao at home, which was recorded on a home-language survey. The district labeled her as an ELL without testing her English skills, according to her lawyer. Then the district, in an effort to comply with the No Child Left Behind law’s requirement to test ELLs on their annual progress in English, gave her an English-proficiency test later that year. She passed the test, but she was still considered an ELL because Iowa requires students to stay in the category until they have passed the English-proficiency test two years in a row.

Ms. Phanachone, who was born in Reading, Calif., said in an interview that she’d attended public schools in both California and New York and never been considered an ELL and never gotten special help to learn English.

At Storm Lake High, she was getting good grades in mainstream classes and considered it discriminatory that she was required to take the English-proficiency test designed for ELLs, she said. During her junior year, Ms. Phanachone said, she protested having to take the test by marking the same answer, C, for every test question, so technically she failed it.

In her senior year, she refused to take the test at all, creating a standoff with school administrators. She said the vice principal told her that she was “no Rosa Parks” and that it was in his power to decide whether she graduated. She landed a three-day suspension. Teachers put her out of the National Honor Society, she said.

Civil rights groups got involved, and eventually the school district cleared her record and she was reinstated in the National Honor Society. The district worked with the U.S. Department of Justice and a commission of the Iowa Department of Human Rights focused on Asians and Pacific Islanders to create a plan to systematically identify and serve ELLs.

In an interview this month, Paul Tedesco, the superintendent of Storm Lake Community Schools, stressed that the district was developing a plan to formalize how ELLs were identified and taught before the incident with Ms. Phanachone. He noted that 55 percent of the district’s 2,100 students are ELLs, most of whom are from families that arrived in the last decade.

“We’re doing a better job of identifying who should be placed in the ELL program,” Mr. Tedesco said.

At Issue in Arizona

The No Child Left Behind Act and federal civil rights law require that districts have a process to identify and serve ELLs. Home-language surveys are used ubiquitously as part of that process, but what questions are on them varies from state to state and even within states.

When asked what civil rights laws, regulations, or guidance say about home-language surveys, Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the federal Education Department, pointed to guidance documents that say school districts must have some procedure in place for identifying and assessing ELLs, but don’t explicitly require a home-language survey. In the “enforcement experience” of the office for civil rights, wrote Mr. Bradshaw in an e-mail, “the most prevalent means of idetification is the home-language survey.” He said that student-language surveys and teacher observation are also used.

Debate over what should be on the home-language survey used in Arizona districts is attracting attention nationwide, renewing discussion on how ELLs can best be identified.

The survey traditionally asked parents what primary language was spoken in the home, the language most often spoken by the student, and the student’s first language. If parents responded with a language other than English to any of those questions, a student was given an English-proficiency test to see if he or she was an ELL. The new survey asks parents only to name the primary language of the child.

Margaret Garcia Dugan, the deputy superintendent for the Arizona education department, said the survey was changed to focus on the language of the child.

“It didn’t really matter what the parents spoke,” she said. She believes that the old form led to overidentification of ELLs, which she said is a violation of students’ civil rights every bit as much as underidentification is.

Ms. Dugan said she does regret, however, that state officials didn’t put out guidance for educators at the same time that use of the new form was mandated. The guidance eventually released gives educators flexibility to give students an English-proficiency test if they suspect a student might be an ELL, even if English is his or her primary language, she said.

Missing Students?

William L. Taylor, a longtime civil rights lawyer based in Washington, said the question of what a child’s primary language is ought to suffice on the home-language survey.

“Then if somebody thinks they are being shortchanged either way,” he said, “they should be able to raise a question about what should be done about it.”

But others are concerned that by asking only the one question, Arizona is weeding out some children who really need ELL services.

The change in Arizona’s home-language survey is also one issue that was raised by the lawyer for parents from the Nogales Unified School District in the federal lawsuit concerning ELLs in Arizona. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June in that case, Horne v. Flores, that the federal district court had to re-examine the case because it had not sufficiently looked at “changed circumstances” regarding the education of ELLs in Arizona.

Timothy M. Hogan, the lawyer for the Flores side, argued in a motion filed with the district court in September that the modification of Arizona’s home-language survey is a violation of the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974. The state is failing “to adequately identify ELL students who are entitled to additional educational assistance to overcome language barriers,” the motion said.

The federal court is scheduled to hear arguments in that case in August.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2010 edition of Education Week as Home-Language Surveys for ELLs Under Fire


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