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Claire Sylvan: Addressing Barriers for English Language Learners

What is college and career readiness and how can it be measured effectively and fairly for all students?  In particular, how should we measure college and career readiness for high school students whose home language is not English and are classified as English Language Learners (ELLs)? As Ready, Hatch, et. al. note, students classified as English language learners (federally referred to as Limited English Proficient – LEP) are not homogenous.  Solutions to ensuring their educational access to postsecondary options must be diverse as well, including multiple pathways to a high school diploma. Assessment of college and career readiness can serve as either a driver for or a barrier to students’ success.  Since New York is one of 25 states that passing exit examinations as a prerequisite for graduation, this is a crucial question.

English language learner students, particularly those who immigrated to the United States as adolescents face three complex and simultaneous tasks: acquiring a new language, achieving high levels of academic knowledge and skills, and learning to navigate a new culture and society.  They face these challenges as young people with typical adolescents’ issues, which are then layered by a complex immigrant experience.  This experience may include long periods of separation from one or both parents.  They may have deep-seated anxiety due to legal issues of immigration status for students or family members or, if the students are undocumented immigrants, concerns about paying for college without access to financial aid.  Adult-child relationships may be altered since the adolescent may serve as the arbiter of all interactions with government, doctors, landlords, etc., and this role can result in increased absences from schools.

Given the clearly complex lives and adjustments that these students experience, and the strengths that these experience can generate, how can we ensure that the pathway to high school graduation, and the on-ramp to college and good careers we design capture what ELLs are actually capable of doing, even as they are still learning English?

Direct assessment of the complex, higher order tasks demanded in college and of the skills and academic mindsets that will allow students to persevere in college and in careers is an appropriate and particularly effective approach for ELLs.  Particularly for ELLs, test results may often confounded by linguistic issues, so it is especially critical to assess what we really want the students to know and be able to do in ways that allow students to fully demonstrate their readiness for college and careers. For example, since writing research papers are a given in college classes, assessing student capacity to write a research paper will directly determine college readiness.  A further benefit is that the assessments can also be embedded as an instructional tool in classrooms, serving as a driver, not a barrier.

The National Research Council report, “Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century” delineates the skills that businesses seek in their employees, such as the ability to think critically, to reason, to innovate, to work effectively in teams and to communicate clearly.  Other skills highlighted are the importance of knowing how to learn in the face of new or changed realities and to demonstrate self-confidence and “grit”.  With these skills, students will be ready in college to find solutions to questions like: “How am I going to pay for this semester when my mother lost her job?”or “How can I get access to this course that I need” or “I don’t understand this text/math problem/scientific theory so how can I learn this?” 

How are you and your co-workers assessed on the job?  Most workplaces use performance reviews rating how you actually perform your job functions rather than administering tests that are meant to serve as proxies for those functions and skills.

For students who arrive as adolescents, and face triple hurdles of acquiring a new language, learning complex academic skills and content, as well as adjusting to a new culture and society, assuring a pathway to graduation that removes unnecessary obstacles but maintains same high standards as for native English speakers is key to opening the door to the American Dream.

Claire E. Sylvan is the founding Executive Director of Internationals Network for Public Schools. A nationally recognized expert and practitioner in both school reform and the education of immigrants and English language learners, Claire is passionate about providing all students but particularly immigrant students, with personalized and cutting edge educational opportunities.