Ask a School Psychologist|
by Beth Bruno, Ed.M., M.A.
School Placement for Immigrant Children
QUESTION: Our family moved to Connecticut from Puerto Rico this summer. We have three children in elementary school. Our children speak some English and write it better than they speak it. My husband and I speak Spanish with them at home. Our English isn't very good, but we understand quite a bit. How will the teachers know what classes to put our kids in? Do the schools have interpreters for parents?
ANSWER: Every district has different programs in place for integrating children from other countries and cultures into their schools. Your first step should be to visit the elementary school your children will attend and, if at all possible, bring someone with you who speaks both English and Spanish well, so you will understand everything from the beginning.
Many families immigrate to the United States every year, eager to find jobs and enroll their children in school as they settle into their new communities. Some speak English; many do not. Language and cultural barriers make assessment of learning skills especially challenging. Some schools place foreign children according to age; others place them according to their skill level in English; still others place them in ESL classes until their English is strong enough to make valid assessments of their abilities.
In my opinion, children who speak English as a second language (ESL) should be placed in classes with students their age, at least until their skills can be fairly and thoroughly assessed. Ideally, if available, they should receive some instruction in their native language, not only to increase their comfort level, but also as a way of learning more about their academic abilities.
The process of evaluating the skills of foreign-born children is complex, because very few of the commonly used achievement and intelligence tests have been translated into other languages or standardized on foreign populations. Therefore, such evaluations need to be completed in a series of steps, taking several variables into consideration.
Make no assumptions. There are any number of reasons why a child might be having difficulty understanding academic assignments. Don't assume there is a learning disability. Try to eliminate all of the logical reasons - such as poor English, confusion because of one's culture, anxiety, lack of experience or exposure, poor hearing or vision, etc.
Determine language proficiency in both languages. Someone fluent in the child's primary language is needed in order to do this. Use tests developed in the child's primary language whenever possible and arrange for interpreters when meeting with parents.
Evaluate cultural and linguistic factors. These include: current language of the home, experience with oral and written languages, previous school attendance, sibling influence, cultural expectations (different for males and females?), parent level of education and parent literacy, parent fluency in both languages and family socio-economic status.
Evaluate environmental factors, such as, school attendance, quality of language instruction (in both languages), parent ability to support language instruction and teaching strategies, socialization with peers, and curricula in previous schools.
Try to eliminate any hypothesis that doesn't fit the data. Rule out physical disabilities. If no external factors seem to be interfering with learning, then refer the child for a complete evaluation through the usual special education channels to see if learning problems fit into one of the disability categories. Any and all needs that can be served through regular education, should be.
Modify and adapt traditional testing materials to the needs of the child, recognizing that any and all changes affect the validity of the measurement, so one will only get approximations, not truly standardized measurements. The goal is to reduce bias enough through the use of standard materials and test items, that reasonable conclusions can be drawn. Even good qualitative results can help with curriculum guidance and will provide useful behavioral data, as well.
Use non-standardized assessment tools or alternative forms of evaluation, such as curriculum-based assessment, portfolios, visual-motor scales, dynamic assessment, observation scales, and teacher/parent reports. Reduce cultural bias.
Interpret results in the context of the child's cultural and linguistic background; cultural knowledge forms the backdrop for interpretation of assessment.
Link assessment results with intervention plans.
Your children have a right to an education, appropriate to their skills and abilities. As a parent, stay involved and maintain regular communication with your child's teachers. Attend school events and continue to ask questions if you don't understand something. Parents are the best advocates for improvements in their children's educational programs.
ESL Standards for Pre-K to 12 Students:
Beth Bruno firstname.lastname@example.org
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