Say you’re a high school student.

A teacher plops a test in front of you. It’s in Farsi.

Huh? you say. Your graduation depends on this test and you know
you’re going to flunk. You know the subject matter, but you don’t
read Farsi.

You, of course, would think you’ve been set up to fail.

This is the predicament Arizona high school kids who know little
or no English find themselves in. We’re talking about Arizona’s
Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) test and the requirement that
it be given strictly in English beginning with this year’s high
school sophomores.

Students in Grades 3, 5 and 8 can take the test once in Spanish,
but if you’re a recent arrival from, say, Mexico and you’re 16 or 17,
you are fresh out of luck. You have to take the test in English,
though for the math portion someone will, if you wish, help you with
the questions.

The initial reaction from believers in bilingual education
(including me) is that this is just plain unfair, not to mention

This initial reaction, however, does not do justice to the
complexity of the problem. We’re talking about rocks and hard places.

You see, it is perfectly reasonable that we expect kids who get
high school diplomas to speak, read and write English reasonably
well. This is a good value to promote.

The dilemma is that most research shows that it takes five to
seven years for a non-English speaker to develop the English skills
necessary to pass a test such as AIMS.

As much as those from the sink-or-swim school would have you
believe that total and immediate immersion will have a kid knowing
English in no time at all, it simply doesn’t happen that way.

A kid who knows no English at age 5 or 6 essentially has 12 years –
the time it takes to graduate – to come up to some reasonable speed
(though without bilingual ed, this student will lag in core topics in
the interim).

A 16- or 17-year-old kid is going to have a much more difficult
time making the grade, so to speak, by his or her senior year.
Exceptional kids will do exceptionally well, but, by and large, this
is simply not going to work for your average recent teen-immigrant.

OK, let’s give the test in Spanish, too.

The real crux of the problem, however, is that our schools do an
inadequate job of teaching either language.

This is what Josue Gonzalez, director for the Center of Bilingual
Education and Research at Arizona State University, meant when he
told a reporter last week, “You can’t test what you don’t teach.”

When limited-english-proficient (LEP) students are tested in
English, they are being tested in a language they haven’t been
properly taught. Ditto for Spanish.

It’s true, Arizona law does allow the 18-year-old kid who has
failed AIMS to stay in high school until age 21. But, we need to be
realistic. Life happens. That kid won’t stay in school and we will
have yet another adult out there without a high school diploma.

No, it is inherently unfair to give the AIMS test in English to
struggling LEP students in high school. Under such circumstances, it
is the school that fails. A proposal by a group of school districts
that the test not be given to LEP students until they gain English
skills has much merit.

But, remember that value we should cling to: No high school
diploma without a reasonable level of English proficiency.

We can turn this sow’s ear into silk only if we take the next
logical step when faced with a student who has failed AIMS because of
deficient English skills. That would be to do whatever it takes –
focused education, tutoring before, during and after school, anything
and everything, whatever it costs – to teach that kid what he or she
needs to know to pass the test.

This, in fact, applies to any high schooler who fails AIMS. Not
just LEP kids.

Are we confident that our schools will make that extra special
effort? I have my doubts, despite best-laid plans and the extra five
days on the school year now proposed. Resources are finite. Teachers
are stretched thin even now.

If the schools don’t make the extra effort, however, AIMS will be
a tool – crafted with the best of intentions – unused. And that would
be a waste.

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