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.

I had to make do with my immigrant mother's helping me piece out the headlines letter-by-letter in the Forvertz, the Yiddish paper that showed up in the mailbox every week. I can still hear her reading the tearjerkers in the advice column to my grandmother. (Even then I knew they weren't exactly great literature.)

If only I'd been given some Yiddish education, I might now be able to read Sholem Aleichem, the creator of the Tevye stories, as in "Fiddler on the Roof," in the original. Not to mention I.L. Peretz, the brothers Singer, and, well, a whole literature and therefore world. Yiddish may be a small, even diminutive, language, but there are those who love it.

Still, I'm grateful that, once I entered public school, it was conducted in English, including the tests. The monolingual may not believe it, but it seemed perfectly natural to switch from Yiddish at home to English in school and then go on to Hebrew School in the afternoons.

A child's sponge-like mind can do that. Kids in Spanish-speaking homes all over the country are probably changing languages just as naturally today whenever they walk in and out the door.

Rather than water down the tests, let's invest in intensive language training for the kids who are still struggling with English, whether they're Chinese in San Francisco, Cajun in South Louisiana, Portuguese in Boston -- or Hispanic in Arkansas.

Because they're all American, and one can scarcely be American without knowing English, or what passes for it on this side of the Atlantic -- whether the dialect being spoken is Maine Yankee or Arkinsaw Suthuhn.

What's the best approach to take toward kids without much English?

Well, I've been reading about a fifth-grader at the John Tyson Elementary School in Springdale, Ark. His literacy instructor, Therese Thompson, isn't about to wait the estimated two years it's going to take for the ESL establishment to come up with alternatives to the regular tests. She notes that the state's next standardized exams will be given in April. "We've got all of December, January, February and March to get him there," she says.

That's the spirit. What's needed is not non-English tests, or tests that use "simplified" English, but more Therese Thompsons.

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.