Low-skill immigration presents a major challenge to the nation's education system. How much can our schools help first- and second-generation immigrant children who have limited English proficiency and live in poverty because their parents have few years of schooling? The release of the latest scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reaffirm that as much as we want to reduce social inequalities related to immigration, our schools' capacity to do so is limited.
For example, looking at the assessment for eighth-grade mathematics – not English – we find that students who speak a language other than English at home "all or most of the time" scored 0.28 standard deviations below students who always speak English at home. Put into more understandable terms, the median student from a non-English-speaking household is at the 39th percentile of students from all-English households. Obviously, the proliferation of non-English households is directly related to immigration – the 2013 American Community Survey shows that 73 percent of children who speak a language other than English at home live in immigrant-headed households.
Poverty is also a factor that correlates with poor academic performance. On the same eighth-grade math test, students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches scored 0.82 standard deviations below students who were not eligible, meaning the 21st percentile. Immigration has made the number of poor children in the U.S. substantially larger than it otherwise would be; according to the most recent (2015) March Current Population Survey, almost one in three students receiving free or reduced-priced school lunch is from an immigrant household.
The relatively low scores of students who do not speak English at home or who live in poverty are an indication of how difficult it can be for disadvantaged youth to succeed academically. A recent report from the Urban Institute that adjusts state-level test scores to account for student demographics shows the challenges associated with helping such students.
The report found that states with high levels of immigration, such as Florida and Texas, fare poorly on national comparisons, but once factors such as student poverty and English ability are controlled for, both states do much better.
By "excusing" those immigrant-heavy states for below-average test scores, the report implicitly acknowledges that low-skilled immigration creates very significant problems for schools that are not easily overcome. Nonetheless, immigration advocates have feted the Urban Institute report, including favorable write-ups from writers at the New York Times and Mother Jones. But if schools should not be blamed for the socio-economic status of their student body – and clearly they should not – why are the same advocates so confident that education will make low-skill immigration benign? Shouldn't they be condemning our schools for failing to mitigate the inequality caused by immigration? Unfortunately, in a world where immigration has become the "Problem-That-Must-Not-Be-Named," these kinds of contradictions are widespread.