Paul Greenberg

Question: Why would the U.S. Department of Education insist that a kid who has little or no English take his year-end tests in English? There are some 4,000 such students here in Arkansas alone. Everybody knows they're going to flunk the test. Why make them take it?

Answer: So we'll know who these kids are, where they are, and just how far behind in English they are. That way, we can concentrate on helping them pass the test in the future.

Why bother? Because it's important that these youngsters become fluent in the language of their adopted country. Let's not pretend that they're being educated (and prepared for citizenship) if they don't know how to read and write English in this one nation indivisible by language.

Here in Arkansas, such students have been allowed to make notebooks ­ portfolios -- to demonstrate their educational progress. But everybody knows, or should know, that putting together a scrapbook is not the same as being fluent in English.

Now that the feds are insisting that these kids be tested, folks are complaining. But the feds are to be complimented, not badmouthed, when they take this No Child Left Behind business seriously. And that means not leaving little Jorge or Maria behind, either.

Various alternative ways to test such kids are being explored by the specialists who teach ESL, or English as a Second Language, but none of those ways sound as good as preparing the student to take the test with better results next time.

Yes, it's hard. But better to accept a tough challenge than spend all this time and energy devising ways around it.

The worst of these cop-outs is the suggestion that the student be given the standardized test in his native language. That's a great way to encourage a bilingual society complete with bilingual tensions. See Canada/Quebec.

Granted, the comparison is not exactly accurate. Because our population is even more diverse than Canada's. Go that route and we'll soon have a trilingual, quadrilingual and generally multilingual country, considering how varied the waves of American immigration tend to be.

Canada's bilingualism would look simple compared to the patchwork of languages Americans would be using if everybody got to take standardized tests in his own native tongue -- from Armenian to Zulu.

I confess that, coming from a Yiddish-speaking home, I never had any formal education in mama-loshen, my mother tongue.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.