Does Competency = Fluency?

Educators debate native-language tests for high school diplomas

No abra este folleto del examen hasta que se indique.

In any language, the words can inspire anxiety in adolescent students:

Do not open this test booklet until you are told to do so.

And the fact that the command appears in 30 languages – from Albanian to Vietnamese – on Regents Competency Tests has inspired debate among educators in New York State. Now, Albany officials have proposed an expansion of native-language testing that qualifies thousands of immigrant students for high school diplomas.

While such tests are meant to help teenagers recently arrived from foreign countries or from Puerto Rico, some critics question the fact that such students need demonstrate only rudimentary skills in English to graduate. Also stirring concern is a rapid rise in the popularity of such exams, including a writing test that has more than doubled in use over the past three years.

One member of the state Board of Regents, J. Edward Meyer of Westchester County, has questioned his board’s endorsement of further expansion, describing some students’ lack of fluency in English as “a horror story.”

More than 2,000 high school students across the state, including hundreds in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, are scheduled this week to take the Regents Competency Tests in languages other than English. The tests, which all students must pass to receive a diploma, are administered twice each year by the State Education Department. While Spanish is the foreign language most commonly used, the state’s program has expanded to such languages as Amharic, which is spoken by Ethiopians; Farsi, by Iranians; Tagalog, by Filipinos; and Urdu, by Pakistanis.

Many in this new wave of immigrants come from nations devastated by war or revolution. Last June, for example, the affluent Great Neck school system in Nassau County tested 10 teenagers in four languages including Farsi, which is spoken by that community’s growing refugee population from Iran. A total of 49 school systems on the Island – half of all those containing secondary schools – have begun providing tests in languages other than English.

Some educators disagree with the approach. “I think it’s a very bad idea,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian and adjunct professor at Columbia University Teachers College. She is a highly respected conservative commentator on educational issues.

“One of the main things that schools do,” Ravitch said, “is prepare youngsters to be full participants in American society. And if they can’t read and write well in English, they’re not going to be full participants. They’re being cheated.”

Being tested in one’s own language is no guarantee of success, critics note. For example, the failure rate was slightly over 50 percent last June for 248 Long Island students who took native-language versions of the competency test in mathematics.

But teachers often say these students’ circumstances are special and many would become discouraged and drop out without the chance to take tests in a familiar language. Tina Epstein, an author of young-adult novels who teaches writing in Great Neck, notes that some of her students are Jewish refugees who escaped Iran on foot under cover of night. “Now,” Epstein said, “do you think that sort of student ought to be asked to take a math test in English, after all he’s been through?”

Supporters often describe native-language tests as a practical way of dealing with increasingly diverse enrollments. This diversity is striking even at Suffolk’s Brentwood Senior High School, long accustomed to serving Spanish-speaking students.

In one classroom, decorated with posters of the Statue of Liberty and a calendar of Hispanic festivals, teenagers one recent morning took turns reading sentences aloud from a workbook titled “English the Easy Way.” Students were required to complete blanks in the sentences with a verb in the appropriate tense.

One sentence mentioned the Hawaiian island of Kauai. This prompted the class’ instructor, Bernard LeBron, to ask how many students had come from another island, LeBron’s own ancestral home of Puerto Rico. Only two raised their hands. Others identified themselves as former residents of El Salvador, Haiti and Vietnam.

“You know, it’s funny,” said LeBron, who has taught in Brentwood for nearly two decades. “Years ago, ninety-five percent of people in these classes were Puerto Rican. Now, they’re a minority.” LeBron went on to say that 16 of the 18 students in the class would take state competency tests in languages other than English.

New York’s multilingual tests – the most extensive of their kind in this country – are provided to teenagers who have attended U.S. schools for four years or less. Such students may substitute these tests for English-language versions of Regents Competency Tests in science, mathematics, American history and global studies. They also may take a Native Language Writing Test as a substitute for Regents Competency Tests in Reading and Writing. Competency tests were established as minimum diploma requirements in the 1970s and have gradually increased in sophistication and scope.

Students who pass native-language tests also must demonstrate a knowledge of English proportionate to the time they have spent in American schools. But the required knowledge levels often are rudimentary.

State education officials describe these requirements as appropriate, in light of New York’s increasing ethnic diversity. “We have almost every language here from Afrikaans to Zulu, and we have to respond,” said Laurie Wellman, regional supervisor in the state’s Division of Bilingual Education.

The number of native writing tests given statewide has more than doubled during the past three years – from 916 in January, 1985, to 1,980 a year ago. The number of math tests given in native languages also has risen sharply – from 1,758 in June, 1985, to 2,462 last June. While the number of diplomas based on such testing remains small in comparison to the total, the proportion is increasing.

Similar patterns are recorded locally. In June, 1984, Hempstead schools provided math tests in foreign languages to 19 students. Last June, the figure was 33, according to state records. In Freeport, the number of tests rose from 18 to 29 over the same period. One of the widest varieties of languages is found in Great Neck, where officials in recent years have administered tests in Chinese, Farsi, French, Hebrew, Portuguese and Spanish.

Such tests are described as morale boosters by students. Arthur Huang, a Great Neck senior, took a writing test in Chinese last year after struggling through a math test in English several years earlier. “I got 85,” said Huang, referring to the math test he took shortly after arriving here from Taiwan. “But if I could take it in my own language, I could probably get a 95.”

Huang and several classmates said they planned to take the writing competency test in English, now that they have passed writing tests in their own languages. While such cases are not uncommon, some critics contend that native-language testing is impractical in suburban school districts where the great bulk of instruction is in English. State law requires instruction in languages other than English only where there are concentrations of 20 or more students in a particular linguistic group.

Critics, including many employers, also cite cases of high school graduates who never become fluent in English. One employer with first-hand experience is Meyer, an attorney who used to interview applicants for clerical jobs at a large Manhattan law firm. In an interview, Mayer recalled hiring a young clerk several years ago, only to discover that his new employee had not learned enough of the alphabet to do filing. This surprised Meyer, because he knew the youth held a diploma from a high school in the Bronx.

Since then, Meyer has expressed reservations over an Education Department plan to expand its multilingual approach to the state’s Regents Examinations. Those exams, considerably more difficult than competency tests, are given to college-bound students. Proposals for this expansion are included in a ” Bilingual Education Policy Paper” adopted by Regents last month.

Meyer, a frequent dissenter with regard to his board’s actions, endorses segments of the bilingual policy that would allow immigrant children more time to become fluent in English before being “mainstreamed” into regular classes, especially in elementary school. But the regent expresses concern that some students will be kept in native-language classes too long, producing a “ghetto-izing” effect.

Fears of linguistic ghettos in such states as California and Florida have led to voter approval of referendums in at least 17 states adopting English as an official language. While some schools in those states continue providing some instruction in students’ native languages in accordance with federal law, their programs are less extensive than those in New York. California, for example, provides high school diploma tests only in English.

An English-only resolution also has been proposed for Suffolk County, and a public hearing on that measure has been scheduled for Feb. 14. Suffolk’s resolution would apply to operation of health and welfare offices rather than schools. But some opponents charge that the English-only movement reflects a general hostility toward different languages and cultures.

Elizabeth Guanil, a longtime activist in Brentwood’s Puerto Rican community, says she supports tests in English even if they require longer stays in school for some Spanish-speaking students. Guanil adds that the push for fluency in English, while essential, must not be used as an excuse to strip ethnic minorities of their cultural identity. “What people have to realize,” she said, “is that we are a very proud people.”

GRAPHIC: 1) Newsday Photos by K. Wiles Stabile-A class at Great Neck North High School that includes a number of foreign-born students. 2) Arthur Huang

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