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A Statistical Look at English Proficiency in U.S. Schools

Teacher holding a book in classElaine Hirsch takes a look at the changing level of proficiency standards in the United States school system.

English proficiency has steadily improved among U.S. students over the last 30 years, thanks to a collective emphasis on language skills in American schools. As immigration numbers increase on an annual basis, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) faces new challenges to ensure America’s children are able to communicate effectively with their peers. Luckily many experts believe impressive annual growth indicates an optimistic outlook for American English-speaking students.

Significant improvement has been recorded among children who learn English as a second language (ESL), says the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), a branch of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). In 2010, IES reported that the number of school-age children (5 to 17 years old) who primarily spoke languages other than English in their homes rose from 4.7 million to 11.2 million between 1980 and 2009. As this number rose, so did the level of English proficiency among ESL students. IES reported that roughly 41 percent of these children struggled with English in 1980; by 2009, this figure had reduced to 24 percent.

Age has shown to be a critical factor when it comes to effectively learning English. Seven percent of 5- to 9-year-olds spoke a non-English language at home and struggled with English in school, compared to four percent of children between the ages of 10 and 17. This figure can be largely attributed to the increased amount of programs for English Language Learners (ELLs) in the nation’s schools. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) reported that ELLs attending grades 7-12 increased by more than 70 percent since 1992, and K-12 enrollments for ELLs rose by 5 percent since 1990. A resource for accredited online graduate courses explains that as the number of children and young adults enrolling in ESL classes continues to grow, so does the need for teachers. Thus it’s not a bad idea for students interested in education to consider taking classes, or enrolling, in ESL or English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs.

Race and ethnicity also play a statistical role in English proficiency. Sixteen percent of both Asian and Hispanic children who did not speak English at home ultimately struggle as ELLs, compared to six percent of Pacific Islanders, three percent of Native Americans and less than one percent among Caucasians and African-Americans. These figures are problematic, since Asians and Hispanics constitute the largest influx of legal U.S. immigrants.

Fortunately, according to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) statistics, the English proficiency of even struggling demographics improves as students get older. Roughly 25 to 45 percent of immigrated Asian and Hispanic children qualified as “limited English proficient (LEP).” Of these students, many lived in “isolated households,” or residences in which no one older than 14 speaks English very well. However, percentages of students in these two categories decreased between 6th and 12th grades, and by as much as 50 percent for children from countries like Vietnam, South Korea, Mexico, Dominican Republic and El Salvador. Furthermore, The New York Times reported in 2007 that 88 percent of second-generation members of Latino immigrant families were strong English speakers, compared to 23 percent of their first-generation relatives. This would indicate the children of immigrants are effectively learning to speak English by the time they reach adulthood.

According to NCES, American students overall improved English proficiency last year. In its 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), English reading scores among American 4th and 8th grade students increased among children of higher- and lower-income families. Additionally, nationwide schools are undergoing major changes that potentially impact ELLs in a very positive way. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration announced plans to dismantle NCLB and transfer the responsibility from federal to state level. This move will conceivably allow each state DOE to customize the curricula taught in its schools. ELLs and other students with special English language needs will play a major role in states with a large immigrant population, including California, Texas, New York and Florida—the four most populous states.

As annual U.S. immigration numbers continue to soar, numbers show more new citizens are learning English than ever before. Their children are grasping the new language early in their education, and are able to hone this skill as they reach adulthood. As our schools evolve to meet the needs of ELLs, experts believe these figures will only improve.

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The Importance of English Language Proficiency for College Teaching Assistants

teacher-holding-bookElaine Hirsch discusses the importance of English language proficiency for College Teaching Assistants.

Learning about how to derive the Black-Scholes formula in a 7:30 AM finance class is a challenging feat in itself; most students would rather not have to worry about understanding their teaching assistants’ English while they’re at it. Unfortunately, you’ve probably had similar experiences in classes taught by master’s degree candidate TAs, and incidences such as these form the basis for establishing guidelines regarding English language proficiency in higher education.

Language proficiency is commonly defined as a person’s ability to speak or perform in an acquired language. In order to evaluate an individual’s abilities, the Test of English as a Foreign Language was established by the Educational Testing Service and is administered worldwide to measure the ability of people to employ college-level English in terms of listening, reading, speaking, and writing skills.

However, the burden of applying this standard through admission guidelines falls to individual states and universities. For instance, the University of Illinois at Chicago requires applicants whose native languages aren’t English to demonstrate above minimum scores on either the TOEFL or the exam of the International English Language Testing System within two years of application.

Similarly, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign “non-native English speaking graduate students who are prospective teaching assistants are encouraged to demonstrate oral English proficiency prior to arriving on campus” by meeting specific requirements on either the TOEFL or IELTS. The university also administers the Speaking Proficiency English Assessment Kit and an English proficiency interview on campus. Clearly, while the expectation is graduate students confirm language proficiency in advance, the university also evaluates them upon arrival.

Along with valid TOEFL or IELTS scores, the University of Buffalo requires all international students who have been awarded teaching assistantships to take the SPEAK test before class registration, or even in some cases prior to admission to a particular program. On the west coast, the University of California also requires either the TOEFL or IELTS.

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