Immigrants' literacy skills a human capital concern

04/12/04

BOSTON, Mass /PRINCETON, N.J. (April 12, 2004) A new report from ETS characterizes the literacy skills of U.S. immigrants as a "human capital concern" that may undermine efforts to improve the nation's schools, labor markets, and social institutions. This warning comes after a decade in which immigration accounted for nearly half of the total U.S. population growth.

The report, A Human Capital Concern: the Literacy Proficiency of U.S. Immigrants, finds that the majority of immigrants lack the English literacy skills sufficient to be successful in U.S. society. The report profiles the prose, document, quantitative, and composite literacy proficiencies of the nation's immigrant adults in the 1990s and describes the economic and social consequences of their dramatic lack of basic skills in this area.

Authors Andrew Sum of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University and Irwin Kirsch and Kentaro Yamamoto of ETS found:

    - A majority of U. S. 16- to 65-year-old foreign-born residents perform at the lowest literacy level. - U.S. immigrants have lower average literacy proficiency than immigrants in other high-income countries, even when the level of education is considered. - Immigrants with higher literacy proficiencies have better labor market outcomes and wages; as a result, they are less likely to be poor or need government support. They are also more likely to be enrolled in education and training programs and to participate in civic and community affairs.

"Immigrants, both well educated and low skilled, have made important contributions to our nation's economy," says Drew Gitomer, Senior Vice President of Research & Development at ETS. "What is clear, however, is that a spirited national debate is needed to determine how to best boost the human capital of this population, as well as about some of our current immigration policies."

"A national need to address English-language and literacy proficiency deficits of the immigrant population has reached crisis proportions," Sum states in the report. "Nearly 40 percent of all 18- to 64-year-old immigrants who arrived in the United States in the 1990s lacked a high school diploma or GED. Between the 1990 and 2000 Census, the number who reported that they spoke a language other than English increased 51 percent to 32.8 million. More alarming, though, the number who either did not speak English at all or did not speak it well, rose to 8.3 million during this same period -- a gain of 71 percent."

The authors note a critical need to improve the U.S. information base that contains data on how certain education, employment and training programs serving the immigrant population are performing. They point out that many of these federally funded programs do not capture any information on the nativity, visa, or citizenship status of enrollees and that the programs provide limited information on reading and math proficiencies at entry or exit.

"It would also be highly desirable to track the true extent of immigrant enrollments in English as a Second Language programs, as well as of the ESL students' English-reading and -writing proficiencies at entry and exit, and their educational, employment and citizenship outcomes," adds Kirsch. "We need comprehensive impact evaluations of the effectiveness of adult basic education programs for this group."

The report states that, among those eligible for citizenship, immigrants with limited formal schooling and with weak English-speaking and English-reading proficiencies encounter greater difficulties becoming U.S. citizens.

"A more concerted campaign should be undertaken in conjunction with state and local adult basic-education agencies, community-based literacy organizations, churches, and community colleges to bolster the English-speaking, -reading and -writing skills of immigrants, and to enable more of them to become citizens and active participants in their communities," says Yamamoto.

The United States currently lacks a specific set of labor market goals to guide national economic policy, the report says; however, empirical research reveals that the increased supply of poorly educated immigrant workers contributes to economic pressures faced by native-born high school graduates and dropouts -- helping to depress the citizens' real wages and living standards.

"Our nation's human capital would clearly benefit from an objective and sustained national policy debate on how best to increase the skill level of the immigrant population and the need for immigration reforms to make national education, labor market, and immigration policies more compatible with each other," the report concludes.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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