Not Mastering English (Yet)

Do graduates of American high schools need to master English before they finish High School? A decision by the Oregon Board of Education says no. What is this about? What is mastery of a language anyway?

First, I think we need to know who these students are and understand the context in which this decision took place. Right now this decision applies to high school students who are fairly recent immigrants to the U.S. who speak, read, and write the language of their home country.  The small number of students (estimated to be about 300 in Oregon) are those who have been in the U.S. for less than 5 years. This means that they arrived by 9th grade. They do however need to have met requirements for their diploma. These requirements include 4 credits in English; 3 in math (Algebra or higher); 3 credits in science; 1 credit in Health; 1 credit in PE; 3 credits in another language/art/career education; and 6 credits of electives for a total of 24.  They have to demonstrate intermediate proficiency in English.

How is intermediate proficiency in English defined? The specifics are found here.  Basically, the definition focuses on ability to read and comprehend grade-level information with support. Ability to use complex English and write simple academic text. Listening proficiency focuses on a range of social interactions and subjects. Speaking focuses on expressing ideas and interacting with others effectively, even if they make errors in grammar.

The reasoning is that if students at this age have achieved intermediate proficiency in English, have mastered their own language, and have met the other subject requirements they are well on their way to developing higher proficiency in English. Indeed, research bares this out. One example is an article by Wiley, Bialystok, and Hakuta  (also see follow-up: Wiley, Bialystok, and Hakuta). They found that both age of immigration and number of years of formal education predicted second language proficiency. Logically, the more recent immigrants were less proficient in English and those who had been in the U.S. longer were more proficient in English. But, there was no evidence of a critical period. That is, there wasn’t a steeper decline in proficiency after age 15 or 20 (typical ages thought to be critical for learning an L2). Formal education also helped people achieve higher proficiency.

Going back to the 300 or so students who will graduate from High School with intermediate English proficiency. What will likely happen with them? Most likely over time they will become more proficient in English. Those who continue their education will likely be able to achieve higher levels of proficiency in English. Overall, I think this is the right decision. I fear however that it will be controversial, I can only hope that these decisions and others like them will be determined by data and not politics.

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