Illustration by Dondi J
Tested by Language

For most high school teachers and students, this time of year means Regents prep. The stakes are high as students must pass all five of their state-mandated Regents exams — each covering a different subject area — before they can receive their high school diploma. Everyone feels the pressure. Some students, though, feel it more than others.

Take, for example, a 7th year student at our high school for English Language Learners in Brooklyn. She has done three extra years because she hasn’t passed the English Language Arts Regents Exam. She has taken it multiple times and every time she receives a score around 60, just points shy of the 65 she needs to graduate. Less than five points keep her from graduation, a diploma and moving on.

This student is an English Language Learner (ELL), one of more than 150,000 such students in New York City. The graduation rate of ELL students is well below the citywide graduation rate of 60 percent. Unfortunately, the personal challenges students face are compounded by the kind of high-stakes standardized tests that parents, teachers and top educators at the NYC Department of Education are starting to question.

High schools have the second highest concentration of English Language Learners in the system, but have the highest number of students that were born outside the United States. What this means in practice is that high schools have the largest group of students that are learning a new language, but also acclimating to a new culture and home environment.

Immediate Pressure

Students that enter as teenagers begin to feel the pressures of graduation requirements immediately. Despite multiple studies that have shown people need anywhere from five to 10 years to academically master a new language, students that enter New York City schools as 9th graders are still expected to graduate in four years.

Imagine two different students attending public high school in Brooklyn. Student one: raised in an English speaking home, surrounded by books, newspapers, TV and conversation in English. Student one has consistent school attendance and has attended public after-school and summer enrichment programs. Student two: born and raised in Guinea, attended school on and off in French and speaks Fulani at home. Student two arrived to New York City at the age of 15 and entered 9th grade.

Student one has been tested her entire life. She is fluent in English and familiar with the format of the test as well as cultural references. Student two is an avid language learner and is almost fluent in spoken English after two years, but has little experience with testing and is still learning to read and write in English.

These two students face the same graduation requirements. They both must pass their five New York State Regents exams with scores of 65 or above. English Language Learners are allowed extra time on Regents exams, they are allowed to use translating dictionaries and have access to the exam in their native language. While helpful, these accommodations are meager compared to the challenges ELL students face.

Gatekeeper Exam

The English Language Arts (ELA) exam is an exception — no translated exam and no dictionaries are permitted. All the exams are a challenge, but it is this exam that often plays graduation gatekeeper for so many English Language Learners.

For many students, the main lesson they learn from the tests is that school equals failure. They begin to question their ability to succeed in school at all. Teachers too, feel the sting of failure each time we have to tell a student they have not passed an exam. They worked their hardest, and so did we, and it wasn’t enough.

The students that do make it through graduation face new challenges. CUNY schools determine a student’s “college readiness” based on their Regents scores. Students that score below a 75 on the ELA Regents and below an 80 on the Algebra I exam have to take a college entrance exam to determine their class placement. Many ELL students end up assigned to take remedial courses before they can enroll in entry-level college classes. The remedial classes end up draining financial aid or personal college funds, but do not count as college credits. What’s more, they sap a student’s confidence in the idea that college is for them.

These exams, and the new Common Core exams, are part of a movement of high-stakes testing plaguing New York City schools. The students that bear the brunt of the injustice of these tests and what they do to our classrooms and school communities are often students who are learning English. In elementary schools, parents have begun to opt their children out of high-stakes testing, and even Chancellor Fariña has put forward policy that says promotion will not depend solely on test scores. In high schools, though, tests are as high-stakes as ever.

Over-testing, and the use of test scores to determine promotion, graduation and access to higher education are ultimately issues of justice. Students that are English Language Learners, about half of whom are also immigrants, are being denied a full education.

The problem is not only that students have to pass the tests to graduate, but what that means for classroom instruction. Students that are new to the United States and English have to be taught the structure of the test instead of developing the critical and analytical skills they need in college.

Portfolio-Based Assessment

The best way to help students acquire language skills and feel good about learning is to move away from testing to portfolio-based assessments in which students create questions, research them, participate in their community to find answers, and then go through the process of writing about and sharing what they have learned. Teachers, students and school communities have the know-how to provide the type of education that English Language Learners, and all students, deserve.

Emily Giles and Rosie Frascella are both New York City public school teachers. Giles teachers 9th and 10th grade students science while Frascella works with 11th and 12th grade ELL students who are preparing for the English Language Arts Regents exam.