Exam creates English-only diploma

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu May 4 13:20:30 UTC 2006

Article Last Updated: 5/03/2006 02:38 AM

Exam creates English-only diploma
State law implies if you do not know the language, you do not graduate

By Jill Tucker, STAFF WRITER
Inside Bay Area

Diplomas passed out at California high school commencements in June will
look just like they did last year.  Yet they will be dramatically altered,
reflecting a sea change in California public policy and in the
expectations of its immigrants. The pieces of paper will not say it and it
is not always a popular way to put it but these will be English-only
diplomas. There is no law stating students must be fluent in English to
graduate from high school. Instead, legislators took a back-door approach
in 1999, requiring students to pass the California High School Exit Exam
in English to receive a diploma.

In short, the law says students not only need to know algebra and
geometry, they must know them in English. The same applies to finding the
main point of a passage or writing a logical essay. The state's position
is this: If you do not know it in English, you do not know it. And if you
do not know it, you do not graduate. Given that 25 percent of our state's
students are considered English learners, an English-only diploma
dramatically raises the stakes for California's education system.

The requirement also raises serious questions regarding the quality of
English-learner classrooms and the validity of the test for those learning
the language. It also begs the state to direct the future for teenage
newcomers who do not have enough time to learn English before graduation
day, even under the best circumstances. Barring a last-minute legal
ruling, untold thousands of English learners will not graduate this spring
because of the exit exam. An estimated 31 percent of the English learners
in the class of 2006 had not passed the exam as of January, the most
recent data available. By comparison, 4 percent of white students were in
the same boat.

Still, the exit exam is quite popular throughout the state, with 81
percent of those born outside the United States supporting a statewide
exit exam, exceeding the 69 percent of those born in this country who
support it, according to a recent statewide poll. State Superintendent of
Public InstructionJack O'Connell has strongly defended the graduation
requirement, arguing a diploma must mean students have the skills to
participate in an increasingly demanding work force.  English included.
"Superintendent O'Connell strongly feels that to have the full opportunity
to succeed in California and the global economy, then a working knowledge
of English is essential to allowing every student to fulfill his
potential," said Rick Miller, the superintendent's spokesman. "We want to
make sure that when you graduate from a California high school that all
options are available to you."

Failure to teach

Perhaps it even comes as a surprise to some that until this year, students
could graduate without knowing fluent English. For many in California and
throughout the country, expecting students to know English is not an
unreasonable requirement for a diploma. In fact, in the mid-1970s, the
California Education Code required proficiency in English to graduate. The
law no longer exists, likely repealed when bilingual education took hold
in later years. Now, 30 years later, it is all about English again, with
President Bush recently calling for an English-only national anthem.

Today, even liberal legislators and civil rights activists say expecting
students to know English is not a problem. An inadequate education,
however, is. By the state's own admission, the school system has failed a
vast number of English learners. They often lack qualified teachers,
adequate facilities and textbooks. These students, many poor, arrive at
the schoolyard gates with the greatest need, yet typically attend
segregated classes with the fewest resources. "The reality is, our job was
to educate the child and the job wasn't done," said the state Department
of Education's Miller. "It takes a partnership between the school system
and the child to find a way to make it work now."

The answer, however, is not to hand out diplomas to children who have not
mastered English, language arts and math skills, Miller said. Yet, there
are civil rights implications from requiring students to know skills the
state failed to teach, critics contend. The state has put the onus on the
children to pass the test before it has placed the onus on itself to teach
them. "If you're going to hold students accountable to whatever standard
you impose, you have to provide them the resources to meet those
standards,"  said Russell Rumberger, education professor and researcher in
English-language learning at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
"Until you can guarantee that, you shouldn't hold them accountable."

Indeed, if the state failed to provide quality teachers and resources to
English learners and those students now require more time to learn the
language and other skills, how does the state compensate them for those
lost years? That is precisely the question posed in a lawsuit pending
against O'Connell and the state Board of Education. A state Superior Court
judge in Oakland is expected to decide as early as Tuesday whether those
civil rights questions are valid and whether the exit exam requirement can
stand this spring.

State Sen. Liz Figueroa, D-Fremont, said the state knew it was failing
these children long ago and essentially did nothing. "Before this test,
California saw plenty of evidence that the English-language learners were
not graduating with English-language proficiency," she said. "We were not
meeting our goals in that regard. We should have addressed that fact." The
business community says those points are well-taken, but it comes down to
what students need to know to be productive in the work force, and the
exit exam is the bare minimum. It might sound backward to place the burden
on the children before putting it on the adults. Yet, by doing so, the
pressure is on the system to ensure the children learn, said Jim Lanich,
president of California Business for Education Excellence.

"Rather than postponing it, get to work," Lanich said. That might not seem
fair, Lanich said, but what is the alternative?  Different expectations
for different children? "What does a diploma mean, then? Something
different for brown faces, something different for black faces, something
different for English learners?" Lanich said. "I don't know what a policy
would be that wouldn't lead to institutionalized racism."

Exam's validity

Critics, however, do not just question the quality of English-learner
education, they also challenge the validity of the exam. The exit exam is
designed to assess whether students know 10th-grade English/language arts
standards and algebra and geometry. The questions, answer selections and
reading passages are written at about the level of a 10th-grade native
speaker. The test was not designed for English learners, nor can it
measure the level of a student's English fluency. It is a tiny technical
point but one that essentially can invalidate the exam for English
learners, say testing experts. The student could fail either because they
do not know the content or they do not know the language.

"If you want to know English skills, then you give them an English skills
test," said John Affeldt, attorney for Public Advocates Inc., a civil
rights organization. "The policy is trying to do double duty." While a
question may test reading comprehension, English learners could be tripped
up by unfamiliarity with the complicated sentence structure rather than an
overall ability to understand the meaning of a reading selection. For
example, after reading a passage from Jack London's "White Fang,"
students on a previous exit exam were asked to determine which of four
sentences best described White Fang's wild side. One of the answer choices
was this: "Upon his inward sight was impressed a succession of

In other words, memories flashed through the dog's mind, but students
without such an advanced level of English might not know what it means and
therefore will not be able to determine it is the wrong answer. "They may
very well have the content, but they may not have the language to
demonstrate the content," said Jamal Abedi, education professor at the
University of California, Davis. Exam supporters say it does not matter,
citing the repeated refrain: If they do not know it in English, they do
not know it. The repercussions, of course, are enormous. Without a high
school diploma, the future for these children is dim.

Ability is there

In California, 1.6 million students are English learners 25 percent of the
state's schoolchildren. English learners in California include students
with an enormous range of linguistic ability. Some come to this country as
infants, others arrive as high school seniors. One could argue that it
took native English speakers 16 years to reach the 10th-grade literacy
level found on the state's exit exam. Newcomers wanting a diploma are
expected to reach that level regardless of when they came to the state.
What then should the state do with those students who arrive from other
countries as teens and cannot pass the test?

State officials say the doors to California's education system will remain
open to these students. They can attend adult school or community college,
officials say. And even though policymakers are requesting more money in
next year's budget to accommodate that influx, it is unclear whether the
resources will be there. State Sen. Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles,
describes her frustration with the system. "It really is ideology over
common sense and experience," she said. "The ideology is 'this is America
and we speak English in America.'"We don't give a damn about these
people," Goldberg said. "We're creating a permanent underclass."

For exit exam sample questions, visit http://www.cde.ca.gov.

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