How I Accidentally Classified My Son as an English Language Learner

By Sumiti Mehta

A few months before my son Atiksh entered Kindergarten (2015), I was filling out his admission form which had a section called the “Home Language Survey” There were a few innocent questions about the languages spoken in the family home. I filled it out without thinking much about it.

Question #3: Which language is most often spoken by adults at home?
Answer: Hindi

Little did I know this reply would plunge me into one of the least understood fights in US schools today.

Born and raised in India, My husband Sudeep and I were happy to move to United States in our late 20’s. Our eldest son Akshaj (13 years old) and youngest son Atiksh (7 years old), both grew up watching Sid the Science Kid, Calliou and Curious George (English versions).

For both of my boys a love for books came naturally and they were both reading before entering Kindergarten. They are high achieving students and my eldest son became a published author, publishing his first book at 8 years old.

So, coming back to my issue, My 7-year-old (Atiksh) came home from school one day and told me about a test he had to take in a different room. What he told me sounded odd and I decided to reach out to his school about the test. It was then that I realized he had been given the label “English Language Learner”(ELL).

It’s Not in Our Control or the Schools
When I called the school to find out why my fluent English speaking/reading son had been classified as “English Language Learner” and wanted to know why he had to take CELT/ELPAC, I learned it all came back to that Home Language Survey, question #3.

By answering Hindi, I had triggered a test of my sons English language skills and he had failed it. He is now labeled as English Language Learner (ELL student) and he will have to take an English proficiency test every year until he is in 5th grade.

One Process Does Not Fit All
Upon learning more about “ELL Student” designation, I wanted to prepare to fix my mistake and met with the school staff. It was then I discovered that it’s a California State Law and the school district would be the only one that can make a change to his designation.

I provided them with facts demonstrating that my son, Atiksh is reading above grade level and is scoring above average on tests. Why is he still classified as an ELL student? The reply once again went back to my answer to Question #3. The district would have to reassess him in order to re-designate him.

Frequently from district to district there are different measures for assessing kids, different tests and different policies for reclassification. What frustrates my husband and I most, is that this is the one of the few long term verdicts involving my child’s education that completely excludes us, as parents. Parents have sufficient rights to opt in or opt out when it comes to AP classes, Honors programs, some standardized tests and even vaccinations; this is not the case with the ELL designation process.

Immigrant Parents
There have been times during this struggle that I have thought to myself how the lack of parent involvement in labeling kids as ELL may be viewed as immigrant parents being regarded as not being capable of making decisions for their children. In my case, having a Bachelors in English,  being a volunteer tutor for kids behind grade level, and telling showing that my child is proficient in English is not enough to re-designate him.

The Reality
I am aware that there are Immigrant children who benefit from being identified, ELL. They receive extra help and resources needed by the school and their district. But, for the many ELL identified children who were born in United States with parents who speak fluent English, it can have a negative impact. Why do these already proficient kids need to undergo special testing to shake the label of “English Language Learner”?

The whole ELL process seems a bit jumbled and is very frustrating for many parents like me. For the thousands of children in schools, whose first language is not English, ELL programs and services are creating a protection net. (And most of the times it works.) But for many children like mine, reality is rather different and the ELL designation has created an unequal track of education for my child.

Sumiti Mehta is Natomas based mother of two boys ages 7 and 13 and an involved member of schools and community. She is on the Parent Booster Board for her son’s school. Sumiti has been nominated several times for N Factor Community awards for her work with kids in schools and community. Sumiti’s 13 year-old son is a published author and his personal narratives inspired her to start writing. On weekends and holidays, along with her boys and husband, they love to take hiking trips or visit Museums.

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