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Are State Exit Exams Driving Students With Limited English Out of High School?
By ANGELA HOKANSON
To view a graphic for this story, click here.


The English Regents exam was less than two months away, and the students in Joseph Lizardi’s senior English class at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx were busy drilling for it one morning this April.

The exam is one of five high-stakes tests required by New York State for high school graduation. Many researchers and educators fear the English exam in particular is a key reason scores of children new to the U.S. and new to the English language are dropping out at alarming rates.

“I don’t think it’s fair for the kids,” said Gilbany Suárez, the assistant principal for English as a Second Language at DeWitt Clinton High School, about the fact that recent immigrants and students who are not proficient in English must take the same exit exams as native English-speakers. “Our hands are tied because of the mandates.”

The numbers justify the concern. In DeWitt Clinton’s class of 2005, only 36 percent of students with limited English skills passed the English test within four years of starting high school. The 4,500-student school is straining to meet the needs of its English language learner population, which mushroomed from 444 to 782 between 2003 and 2005 as some of the city’s big high schools were replaced with small schools that did not at first admit English language learners. The school’s overall drop-out rate jumped from 3 percent to nearly 7 percent between the 2003 and 2005.

Citywide, between 1999 and 2002, the graduation rate for students not proficient in English dropped from 59.7 to 49.5 percent. The rate represents the number of students who graduated in four to seven years. The drop coincides with the introduction of the first Regents exam requirement in 2000.

The Department of Education has recognized the test’s impact on kids who struggle with English. A 2005 education department report found that for English language learners, “the final graduation rates are likely affected by the more stringent New York State graduation requirements.” The report said that the trend was an important one to follow in years to come.

New York State is not alone in its move toward more challenging exit exams for high school students. In 1979, New York was the first state to institute an exit exam policy when it required students to pass the Regents Competency Tests. Since then, a total of 18 states across the country have adopted exit exams as part of their graduation requirements.

Beginning in the early 1990s, several states started beefing up their exit exams, turning them from tests of minimum, basic skills, to more challenging tests of the mastery of high-school level academic concepts.

The rationale behind exit exams is that they give more weight to a high school diploma, helping to ensure that the piece of paper means something substantial, said John Robert Warren, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota who has studied the relationship between exit exams and graduation rates.

Proponents of exit exams argue that high school graduates will know more and will be better prepared for college and careers if they need to pass robust tests before they can leave school.

Some supporters of the Regents exams think students will achieve more if more is expected of them. “ New York has always had standards,” said State Education Commissioner Richard Mills in a 2001 report to the State Board of Regents. “It’s just that the standards in practice applied to only some students. Only in recent years when Regents coupled standards with Regents exams did the standards have real traction—and real benefit for students.”

But Warren’s 2006 study on the relationship between exit exams and graduation requirements across the country showed that the tests may actually work to reduce graduation rates without adding value to the diploma.

“The research we’re doing suggests that they do reduce graduation rates and do not have much positive affect either,” Warren said of exit exams.

Warren’s research found a correlation between exit exams and lower graduation rates across the U.S. between 1975 and 2002. States that use any type of exit exam have graduation rates that are about one percentage point lower than states that do not. States that have more challenging exit exams, like the New York State Regents, have graduation rates that tend to be about two or three percentage points lower than states that have none.

The raw numbers represent tens of thousands of students who aren’t graduating each year across the country, Warren said. His research shows that the effects of exit exams are even more pronounced in states that are more racially and ethnically diverse with higher poverty rates.

In New York City, the number of students who take the Regents tests and finish high school is actually lower than the graduation rates provided by the city’s education department. This is the case because New York City counts GED recipients—who do not need to take the Regents tests—as high school graduates. Some GED programs in the city have experienced an increase in the number of young adults seeking out their services over the last few years. The staff at these programs who have noted the increase cannot say definitively if the Regents requirements are behind the surge in teens who are seeking a high school equivalency rather than a high school diploma.

Turning Point, a nonprofit organization that offers basic education, pre-GED and GED programs, saw a “big bump” in the number of 16 to 18 year olds coming through the doors about four years ago, said Bruce Carmel, the deputy executive director of educational services. Turning Point attracts that population of students in part because it is one of only a few GED programs that works with teens and young adults in New York City. Most GED programs are geared toward middle-aged adults, who don’t have the same social or developmental issues as teens, Carmel said.

Last year, out of the 700 students enrolled in Turning Point’s programs, about half were youth. This year, Turning Point’s programs are expanding with the help of extra funding from the state. Carmel said he expects to serve about 900 students, with more than half falling between ages 16 and 24.

The adult and family education program director at Lutheran Family Health Center, Stacie Evans, has also noted an influx of younger students. “The students in our pre-GED and GED classes are a lot younger than they were when I started at Lutheran four years ago,” Evans said. Lutheran only accepts students 18 and older, but they do get inquiries from 16 and 17-year-olds. The average age of students in their GED program has fallen to about 21 from 30 four years ago. “It’s a big dip,” Evans said.

The staff at Lutheran does not ask its students why they left high school. It only asks them why they chose Lutheran as a place to pursue their GED. So it’s difficult to gauge what role the Regents tests may have played, Evans said.

The increasing number of high-school-age youth seeking GEDs is a concern, said Ira Yankwitt, who is the director of the adult education network at the Literacy Assistance Center, which refers adults to GED programs. The GED was never meant as an alternative pathway to high school for teens. Young adults sometimes opt for GEDs thinking it will be an easy way out of high school, but in fact the GED test is rigorous and it can take years of part-time preparation to be ready to take it, Yankwitt said.

GED programs “become dead-ends for a lot of students who aren’t able to pass,” said Gisela Alvarez, a senior project director at Advocates for Children, an organization which has researched the connection between the Regents exams and lower graduation rates among students with limited English. Having a GED rather than a high school diploma can limit a young person’s options for college and jobs, Yankwitt said. Certain schools, like CUNY, have a fairly high cut-off score on the GED for prospective students. And potential employers are sometimes suspicious of a youth who opted for a GED rather than a high school diploma.

Another factor in the high dropout rate for English learners is the dwindling number of bilingual programs for teenagers. The small schools that are replacing large failing high schools are not required to enroll English language learners in their first two years. And the provision of basic services like English as a Second Language and bilingual programming has been “spotty” in the new small schools, Alvarez said.

“They’re sort of being shut out of certain reforms that are meant to address the graduation rate overall,” said Alvarez, referring to the place of English language learners in the small schools movement. The city education department has told Advocates for Children that small schools will now begin accepting English language learners in 9th grade, but the department has yet to announce this policy shift formally.

The Regents tests are only one factor influencing whether a student decides to finish high school or not, said Pedro Ruiz, who heads the state education office that administers bilingual education programs. Other factors include being held back in school, being needed by their families as breadwinners, and lacking parental support and encouragement. Immigrant students who have had interrupted educations are also at a disadvantage when it comes to finishing high school.

But many advocates, educators and researchers believe that the Regents exams are a principal factor in the falling graduation rates. In a 2002 study of the issue, Advocates for Children and the New York Immigration Coalition called the falling graduation rates for English language learners a “direct result” of the new graduation requirements. The two groups note that in the Class of 2000, only 36 percent of English language learners passed the English Regents tests, compared to 75 percent of students who do know English.

Students may re-take the Regents tests multiple times, but they do not always stick with it. Re-taking the test is demoralizing for the teens, and often means they need to stay in school longer to do so, said Kate Menken, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center who researches second language instruction. “It’s incredibly discouraging” for the students, she said.

To improve these students’ chances at passing the Regents tests, Advocates for Children and the New York Immigration Coalition have recommended increasing the number of teachers who are certified English as a Second Language instructors, improving instruction for English language learners on the core academic subjects, and creating alternative assessments to the English Regents tests for late-arriving students with limited knowledge of English.

Another debate is brewing over whether the Regents tests are appropriate at all as assessment instruments for this student population. All of the Regents tests, including the math test, use lots of language and are “linguistically complex,” Menken said. As a result, the tests are first and foremost a test of language ability, not of the subject matter at hand. The exams were never designed nor intended for English language learner students, and thus don’t give an accurate gauge of what the students know.

A July 2006 report by the U.S. General Accountability Office concluded that the assessments being used by many states to test English language learners are not necessarily valid or reliable. Validity and reliability are two key standards in creating educational assessments that convey accurate information. The report also notes that the research on the suitability of commonly-used test accommodations—such as extra time and bilingual dictionaries—is also thin. Even assessments in students’ native languages may not be appropriate if the students haven’t been taught the relevant content in that language.

New York State permits English language learners certain test accommodations to help level the playing field. Students who have not reached proficiency in English are granted time and a half to complete the exams. They can also use word-for-word glossaries to translate from English to their native language. On the English exam, the listening passages can be read to them three times instead of two. And for all the exams besides the English exam, students may take the test in their native language—if those tests are available. But some experts question whether these accommodations effectively address the heart of the students’ circumstance—not being proficient in English—while not skewing the results in other ways.

“None of the stop-gap measures have been successful in making the tests valid or reliable,” said James Crawford, a bilingual education advocate and author. “It’s unfair to schools and ultimately to kids to base things on tests that are not accurate.”

Translated tests may be one of the more effective accommodations for students who have received instruction in their native language, Menken said. But, translated tests are not available for everyone in New York State. The four non-English Regents exams are available in five foreign languages: Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Haitian-Creole and Korean. These languages cover the majority of English language learners in New York State, but exclude about 20 percent of English language learners in New York City.

Besides the five linguistic groups that are most prevalent statewide, the remaining language groups fluctuate from year to year as immigration policies change, said Ruiz. For that reason, it wouldn’t make sense to develop costly tests that cater to every language group.

For some educators, the English Regents test is the most problematic, unfair test because students must take it in English. “The English Regents is designed to be the culmination of 11 years of English Language Arts instruction,” said Sheila Krstevski, an ESL teacher at DeWitt Clinton. “Our students don’t get 11 years of English Language Arts.”

Krstevski thinks a more appropriate scenario would be to ask English language learners who have been in the U.S. since at least 9th grade to take an English as a Second Language Test that is on the same level as the foreign language Regents test some native English speakers take. Right now, there is a huge difference in the difficulty level between the English Regents and the foreign language tests.

“The English Regents is the sticking point,” said Suárez.

Even high school principals that are managing to keep their English learners from dropping out believe the English Regents is onerous. “I don’t think they should have to sit for the English Regents,” said Martha Polin, principal of the Lower East Side Preparatory School, where about 85 percent of the students are recent immigrants from China. Polin thinks that other test accommodations, such as creating a different passing score on the tests, could be fairer. With a dropout rate of about nine percent, Polin’s school is beating the odds for English language learner high school students. She credits the combination of bilingual and ESL programming, and an experienced teaching staff for the school’s success.

But Polin still thinks recent immigrants need more accommodations and flexibility than they are presently granted. The translated tests are one useful accommodation, but they are not always accurate. Her school frequently finds mistakes in the translated tests.

Lawmakers have tried to address the problem at the state level. New York State Assemblyman Peter Rivera introduced legislation in 2005 that called for an alternative assessment to the English Regents exam for high school students who aren’t fluent in English. The legislation was prompted by an interest in stemming the dropout rate among students with limited English skills, said Guillermo Martinez, Rivera’s legislative director. But the bill never made it out of the Education Committee, in part because it became clear that the law would run counter to the assessment-for-all mandate of No Child Left Behind.

And the U.S. Department of Education got involved when it launched an initiative in the summer of 2006 to encourage states to improve the quality and accuracy of their tests. Called the Limited English Proficient Partnership, the initiative seeks to ensure that state tests are valid and reliable for students with limited English skills. The Department of Education, along with independent groups including the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, will provide states with technical assistance on creating and modifying tests for English language learners.

But some schools are taking their concern about the assessments for students with limited English into their own hands. In December of 2006, Polin’s school formed a network with about 11 other Manhattan schools that have high numbers of ELL students and are concerned about the state testing regimen. The coalition has only met twice, but they are planning to lobby at the state level for more accurate testing tools for this student population.

While accurate tests would be a step in the right direction, Menken thinks the state and the federal education departments need to take a more nuanced look at this student population. “We need to re-think accountability for this population completely. We need an alternative diploma where the standards are just as high.”

In the classroom, teachers like Lizardi continue to prepare their students for the tests that stand between them and a high school diploma. The 20 students in Lizardi’s class, most of them Spanish speakers with Hispanic last names, copied down a quotation which they were asked to apply to two works of literature in a sample Regents essay.

Lizardi outlined the proper structure for a body paragraph of an essay, explaining each element as he went along. The paragraph should start with an analysis of the first work of literature, Lizardi said. Then students should provide some background information about the book they have chosen. Finally they should discuss which dramatic elements are at work in the quotation and how they relate to the first work they have discussed.

Then, Lizardi stepped back to talk about how students can figure out the meaning of the quotation if they cannot understand it. Translate it into your own language, he offered, or break it down word for word to try to hone in on key vocabulary. He cautioned them about the importance of not just running with the dictionary definition. They must be careful of idiomatic expressions that are nonsensical if students were to take them at face value.

“Make sure you read that quotation real nice,” Lizardi encouraged his students. “So that when you start writing you can give me some good stuff.”