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 cruel.
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.