Special Report
English-Language Learners

Graduation Hurdles Prove High for ELLs

By Scott J. Cech — December 31, 2008 4 min read
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If assessments designed mostly for native English-speakers present an obstacle to English-language learners, exit exams that determine whether students graduate from high school can be a brick wall, according to some educators and researchers.

According to the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization, 23 states require students to pass an exit exam to graduate—many without regard for those students’ English proficiency, how recently they entered the United States, or how much schooling—if any—they had in their home countries.

“Usually, five to seven years is the time it takes for students to be fully functional in an academic environment in English,” says H. Gary Cook, a researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

He illustrates the problem by outlining the challenges faced by 9th or 10th graders who speak no English and have had little formal school in their home countries. “It may not be reasonable to ask them in the span of three or four years to have 12 years of education,” he says. “To say that these students need to be proficient by the time they graduate is not really a reasonable expectation.”

When Joanne H. Urrutia, the administrative director of bilingual education and world languages for the 340,000-student Miami-Dade County, Fla., public schools, is asked whether her state’s exit-exam policy serves ELL students, her answer is simple: “No.”

“In Florida, they have to meet the same, exact graduation requirements as any student,” she says. That includes passing the state’s Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test of reading and math. The test, known as the FCAT, is offered only in English, “so as you can imagine, that presents a big barrier,” Urrutia says.

Though accommodations, including dictionaries, are permitted for English-learners, that may not be enough. Imagine, for example, being in the position of someone who only speaks English and needs to take an assessment in another language. “I’m sure if they gave you a test in German, no matter how many dictionaries and how much time they gave you, it would present a challenge,” she says.

Exit Exam Issue

Not all states are “English only” when it comes to exit exams on subjects other than English, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier for ELL students to get their diplomas, or for their schools to make No Child Left Behind-required adequate yearly progress in the process.

New York state, which requires students to pass its Regents exams in English, mathematics, social studies, and science before they can graduate, allows all but the English exam to be translated into the most-spoken other languages for those in the state: Spanish, Haitian Creole, Korean, Chinese, and Russian.

“The accountability system statewide doesn’t take into account all of the diversity within that [ELL] cohort,” says Estrella Lopez, the director of English-language learning and instructional services for the 12,000-student New Rochelle school district in New York. “I may have children who have never gone to school. ... Some kids may take more time.”

For some students, she says, a fifth year or more of high school may be required—under state law, students can be in the school system up to age 21. But the NCLB law’s cut-off for high school is four years, she says, and that can influence whether a school makes AYP.

Not that you’ll find many 21-year-olds in a high school.

“They get frustrated—they get to be 18, 19, they don’t want to be in high school,” says Urrutia of ELL students in Miami-Dade schools who haven’t passed the FCAT. As a result, she says, many drop out.

That’s why Florida and other states that require high school exit exams offer certificates of completion. In Florida, a student who has met all requirements for graduation except passing the exit exam can stay in school an extra year, take special instruction, and try to pass the test again.

Of course, not all ELL students—even recent arrivals—have such trouble passing exit exams.

“It depends on the literacy level that they bring with them—we have some graduating at the top of their class even though they’ve been here [in the United States] for only three years,” says Urrutia. She recalls that in one graduating class of Hialeah Senior High School in Hialeah, four students won admission to Harvard University with scholarships, despite the fact that they had been in the country at most five years.

Officials at the 694,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District say they have been making progress helping English-learners to pass the California High School Exit Examination, which is offered first in 10th grade.

“I don’t have issues with exit exams, because I think in the long run it’s ... held everyone accountable,” says Judy Elliott, the district’s chief academic officer. “It really has addressed how we educate our most at-risk kids.”

The graduating class of 2008, for example, included 20,829 students classified as limited-English-proficient or as former ELL students who had qualified as “redesignated fluent English-proficient.” As of July, 88 percent of those students had passed both the math and language arts sections of the state test. That was only one percentage point lower than the passing rate of the class of as a whole.

“We are moving in the right direction,” Elliott says.

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