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High School Credits for ELLs Still a Challenge

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 27, 2009 6 min read
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When Maria Piedra, then 16, moved with her family from Mexico to Texas in the mid-1980s, she was placed in the 6th grade. She had completed 9th grade in Mexico—and had a transcript to prove it—but officials of the Donna, Texas, schools seemed only to care that she didn’t speak English.

“I didn’t have a choice,” recalled Ms. Piedra, who is now a reading coach for the 14,000-student Donna Independent School District. “Being 16 in 6th grade, where everyone was 10 or 11 years old, ... it was depressing. I cried.”

Such rigid policies have changed in Donna and elsewhere, with immigrant students getting credit in many places for their work in their native countries. But state and district policymakers nationwide still struggle with how best to award credits to adolescent English-language learners from other countries and help them gain access to the high school curriculum—and a diploma.

Nationally, the average high school graduation rate for ELLs is 64 percent, compared with 80.1 percent for all students, according to an analysis by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center of data reported by states to the federal government for the 2005-06 school year.

State-by-state graduation rates for ELLs range from 39.5 percent in Georgia to 83.1 percent in Missouri, according to “Perspectives on a Population: English-Language Learners in American Schools,” published this month by the research center, an arm of the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week. Eighteen states failed to report the graduation rate for ELLs.

In some urban school districts, the graduation rate for students who start 9th grade as English-learners and graduate four years later is much lower than what their states have reported for ELLs.

For example, in the 1 million-student New York City district, the graduation rate for ELLs in the class of 2007 was 23.6 percent, compared with 55.8 percent for all students in the district. In Texas’ 49,000-student Brownsville Independent School District, which won the 2008 Broad Prize for Urban Education, the graduation rate for ELLs in 2007 was 26.8 percent, compared with 53.2 percent for all the district’s students.

English-language learners such as Abigail Ramirez, 15, of Brownsville, Texas, must keep a fast academic pace to meet the goal of graduating in four years.

Local Discretion

Many states, including California, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia leave it up to districts to determine how to handle credits for adolescent immigrant youths upon their arrival.

In Virginia, for instance, regulations don’t distinguish the awarding of credits to a student moving from a foreign country from awarding credits to a student transferring from a district in another state.

Some school districts in states that leave such credit decisions in local hands, such as the Fairfax County schools in Virginia and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina, have developed practices for evaluating immigrant students’ transcripts and placing them in courses.

The 165,000-student Fairfax County district has a 200-page manual on how to evaluate transcripts from around the world, said Diana F. Jarrett, the coordinator of student registration for the district. The school system evaluates about 1,300 high school transcripts of foreign-born students each year at a central intake center.

Ms. Jarrett said her staff works actively with the Metropolitan Area Foreign Student Advisors, an organization serving the Washington, D.C., area, in sharing what the district has learned with other districts that are now trying to put similar systems in place.

“We want to give students credit for what they’ve learned,” said Ms. Jarrett. “Why should we teach them Algebra 1 and 2 over again? I’d rather teach them calculus.”

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg district has had procedures in place for years for evaluating foreign transcripts. But Joan L. Rolston, the ESL program counselor for the district, said she made those procedures more uniform after she became the overseer of guidance counselors for ELLs in 2004 and introduced a guide published by NAFSA: Association of International Educators for evaluating high school transcripts.

In her district, guidance counselors at individual schools are responsible for evaluating transcripts and have been trained to do so. About 17,000 of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s 140,000 students are ELLs.

Ms. Rolston has provided similar training to other North Carolina school districts, including the Hickory city and Buncombe County districts.

In Texas, the Donna school district took a big step three years ago toward helping adolescent ELLs earn credit for classes they’d taken in Mexico. The district became a participant in a new program, Language Learners at the UT Center for Hispanic Achievement, or LUCHA, that operates out of the University of Texas at Austin.

The staff members of LUCHA, which means “struggle” in Spanish, evaluate student transcripts from Mexico—tracking them down in some cases—and advise districts on how many credits to give students. LUCHA also provides online high school courses in key academic subjects in Spanish, aligned with Texas standards, that students can take to earn core credits at the same time they learn English.

“Before LUCHA, a lot of times, high school kids were placed at the middle school because people weren’t looking at the transcripts they brought with them. You had children who were 18 in the middle school,” said Ofelia Gaona, who oversees programs for ELLs for the Donna district.

Earning a Diploma

But giving students a head start by honoring the work they’ve done in another country is only one step that schools need to take to support immigrant students in getting a high school diploma, district-level educators say.

A big issue is how to enable students to earn core credits at the same time they are learning English. It can be difficult, for example, for a student who arrives in a U.S. school at age 16 or 17 to obtain four credit units in English and four credits in math, as many states now require, within four years.

Regulations recently made final by the U.S. Department of Education require districts to count only students who have graduated in four years toward the graduation rate that is reported for accountability purposes under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Some states do not permit districts to give core English credits for English-as-a-second-language classes at beginning levels. Other states leave the matter up to districts to decide.

In North Carolina, districts are permitted to give core English credit for classes taught by an ESL teacher if that teacher is also certified to teach regular high school English, and if the course is aligned with the state’s regular English-language-arts standards. Georgia has a similar policy for English-language arts classes and some kinds of ESL classes. But California and Virginia give districts discretion on whether to provide elective or core English credits for ESL courses.

School districts, and some states, are increasingly training mainstream high school teachers in strategies that help ELLs understand what’s going on in regular classes so the students can pass core classes and earn credit.

Ms. Piedra, the reading coach in the Donna school district, who is now 37, remembers that in addition to being placed in 6th grade as a teenager new to the United States, she never had access to the regular curriculum throughout high school. She managed to pass the Texas high school exit exam and get a diploma at age 21. But when she got to college, she struggled to keep up with her peers because she hadn’t been adequately prepared in high school.

She said she’s trying to guide today’s immigrant students onto a smoother path.

A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 2009 edition of Education Week as High School Credits for ELLs Still a Challenge

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