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Equity & Diversity Opinion

When a Rush to Graduate Shoves Learning Aside

By Ellen Balleisen — July 20, 2010 5 min read
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It’s an unquestioned premise that high schools should strive to graduate students in a timely manner. But students suffer if schools try to rush them toward a diploma even when their skills are nowhere close to the 12th grade level. This is especially true with adolescent English-language learners, who often cannot attain academic proficiency in English by the age of a traditional high school graduate.

Two young adult immigrants to New York City offer poignant illustrations.

Amzatou emigrated from the Ivory Coast in 2006, when she was 16 years old. On arriving in the United States, she spoke French and several African languages but could not read or write in any of them. Her educational experiences since then are described in a report from the organization Advocates for Children of New York on immigrant students with low or no native-language literacy.

Of the 12 students profiled in the report, Amzatou stands out as the most motivated to learn. She has taken advantage of after-school tutoring, Saturday instruction, and mentoring from an organization of African immigrant women. As a result of her hard work, she is no longer illiterate; her reading and writing skills are described as being “on at least a 2nd grade level.”

Now age 20, Amzatou is still in high school, but soon will “age out” and have to leave. She is taking classes to prepare for the state Regents exams that New York students must take to graduate from high school, even though she cannot comprehend the assigned reading material. Meanwhile, her father no longer wants to support her financially and has pressured her to make an arranged marriage. According to the report, Amzatou is consumed with worry about her future.

Unlike Amzatou, Wilton, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, arrived in New York with native-language literacy skills at grade level. But he knew almost no English when he enrolled in a Bronx high school in November 2006 at the age of 18. After assessing Wilton’s transcript, the school granted him 12th grade status. Yet a guidance counselor told him that if he wanted to graduate at the end of the school year, he would have to take 14 classes a day, some during the regular school day and some in a special evening program for older students.

So Wilton plunged into a school day that began at 8:20 a.m. and ended at 7:30 p.m. Most of the courses were taught in Spanish, but he also received two 40-minute classes of English as a second language. His program did not include math. Shortly after he enrolled, his high school gave him a Spanish version of the first-level math Regents exam; he passed this test of elementary algebra, and therefore met the minimum requirement for graduation. Since he needed to take many other subjects that were required for graduation, school administrators decided a math class was unnecessary for him.

After eight months in his New York high school, Wilton graduated. By this point, he could manage basic conversation and reading in English. But he couldn’t read a college textbook or write a coherent essay in his second language. He also knew no English math vocabulary.

Wilton then enrolled in Bronx Community College, where he failed not just the school’s basic exams in reading and writing, but also in arithmetic and elementary algebra. He had forgotten some of the algebra he had once known, and could not understand much of the vocabulary in the arithmetic problems.

To improve his skills, Wilton spent one term in an adult education ESL class, then a year in an intensive English program designed to help immigrant students prepare for college. At the same time, he took Saturday courses to prepare for the math tests he would need to pass. By January 2009—18 months after his high school graduation—he had finally passed all his college’s basic-skills exams.

Both Wilton and Amzatou would have benefited from a school system that saw educating them as more important than moving them toward graduation as fast as possible. It’s hard to imagine that Wilton could absorb most of what was taught in his 14 classes a day. It’s even harder to imagine that Amzatou, with reading and writing skills at the low elementary school level, is absorbing much from classes to prepare students for high school exit exams.

Better high school graduation rates in U.S. schools are an absolute necessity. In today’s economy, those who never finish high school have very little chance of functioning well in society. But in the pursuit of higher graduation rates, many districts have threatened schools with sanctions or closure unless their statistics improve. This pressure appears to be leading schools to take actions that defy common sense. Putting students in classes that are way beyond their skill levels seems a recipe for motivation-killing frustration. So does handing diplomas to students without high-school-level skills, who may feel deeply discouraged when colleges place them in remedial classes.

What would a more productive approach look like?

Putting students in classes that are way beyond their skill levels seems a recipe for motivation-killing frustration.

In Amzatou’s case, her school’s administrators would acknowledge that a 20-year-old still acquiring basic literacy cannot be expected to receive a regular high school diploma. Instead of putting Amzatou in classes designed for students at least seven grade levels beyond her current reading level, the school would provide her with intensive instruction designed for newly literate adults. It would help her find a good adult education program she could attend once she becomes too old for high school, and assure her that if she keeps working hard, she will eventually be ready to prepare for the high school equivalency exam. The school would also help Amzatou get vocational training, so that she would be able to find a job while she continues to work on her academic skills.

Wilton’s guidance counselor should have encouraged him to spend at least one extra year in high school. He should have taken fewer classes at a time while receiving several hours a day of English instruction, with an emphasis on the reading and writing skills he would need in college, not just the basic communication skills that his high school English classes stressed. He also should have been taking math classes throughout his time in high school, both to learn English math vocabulary and to get beyond elementary algebra, which many college-bound students take in middle school.

Good education policy is both idealistic and realistic. It assumes that students like Amzatou and Wilton can reach high academic goals if they have sufficient time and supportive teachers. At the same time, it recognizes the immense difficulty of the task facing these students, and the teachers and administrators who work to help them. It doesn’t make a tough task even tougher by expecting it to be done in an impossibly short time frame, and it doesn’t claim that the task has been completed when in reality it hasn’t been.

A version of this article appeared in the August 11, 2010 edition of Education Week

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