The following is an op-ed written by MORE’s Joanna Yip about the effect of the Regents scoring problems on a particularly vulnerable population.
Yesterday, SchoolBook, the Daily News, and Gotham Schools reported on the Regents scoring debacle that is unfolding all over the city. I would like to call attention to the ways in which this process has already and may continue to disproportionately hurt English language learners (ELLs) in New York City. I am a high school English teacher in a school that serves ELLs exclusively, and I am furious about what this process will mean for my students.
According to the NYCDOE Office of English Language Learner 2013 Demographic Report, 28.7% of the city’s ELLs are in high school. 74.2% of these students were born abroad. Citywide, 69.2% are eligible for free lunch (the city wide average is 55.6%). Many high school ELLs arrived in the US in the middle of their adolescence and only had a few years to both learn English and to master a high school curriculum that assumed that they had been educated in the United States their entire lives. Imagine growing up in the United States and moving to Japan when you’re 14, and being expected to become fluent in Japanese and pass all of the exit exams required for high school graduation in Japanese. Even with translations, this is a challenge. Yet, for two of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the city who speak Arabic and Bengali, none of the Regents are translated into either of these languages.
As is well known, standardized tests are inadequate instruments for assessing the learning of English language learners. These students are often penalized for their still-developing language development, even when their content knowledge matches their American-born peers. English language learners typically need 5-7 years to become truly comfortable enough with English, so asking them to perform well on high-stakes Regents exams when they have only been in the country for 2-3 years is a very tall order, but one that these students take on with diligence and hard work. Shael Polakow-Suransky, formerly a principal of a school that serve high school ELLs exclusively, said it himself yesterday on the Brian Lehrer show that ELLs typically need more than 4 years to successfully perform well on those exams and graduate. Because of the increasing challenge of passing the Regents exams, graduation rates for ELLs continue to lag behind the general population.
With this in mind, approximately 20 high schools in the city, all of which serve only or very large populations of ELLs, petitioned to have separate scoring sites for the Regents exams. The idea was that ELLs should be graded by teachers who have a familiarity with the writing and usage particular to those students who are learning a new language. These teachers, because of their expertise in teaching this population, understand that ELLs can still demonstrate understanding of content, even if their syntax and grammar may not be fluent.
In mid-May, I attended a training session for site supervisors where I learned that the exams of ELLs would be graded in separate scoring sites, that their exams would be routed specifically to be graded by teachers who teach ELLs. This sounded very promising and supportive of immigrant students. When scoring began on Friday, scorers at my site began seeing a few very disconcerting patterns. The first problem was that, because many exams were not scanned properly, we saw that we were reading tests of students that came from high schools that we knew for a fact did not have many ELL students. Why were we scoring their exams when we were only supposed to be scoring the exams of ELL students? More importantly, this raised a much more serious concern, which was whether or not the exams of ELL students were being graded by teachers who have never had experience teaching ELLs. If that was the case, we would be seeing lower scores for ELLs because the norming process for grading does not include any training on how to grade the responses of ELLs. The Regents scoring guides for all subjects pretty much only use anchor and practice papers written by native English writers. This is true for all subject areas.
We found out today that, in order to route the ELL exams to the ELL scoring sites to be read by ELL teachers in the McGraw-Hill system, the students’ exam booklets had to be labeled with a particular label that would indicate that the student was an ELL when the test was scanned. When a teacher pulled up an ELL exam on the McGraw-Hill web application, there would be an indication that the student was an ELL. Yet, many administrators across the city, never received instructions, or received inaccurate instructions for placing this extra barcode label on their ELL students’ exams. As a result, ELL students exam booklets were not labeled to indicate that they were ELLs, and were graded by teachers who have never had any training in how to score responses written by ELLs.
Yesterday, principals in schools that serve a large number of ELLs began receiving some of their students’ test scores back. Sure enough, there was a huge discrepancy in what teachers would have expected their students to score, based on their knowledge of the students’ classroom performance, to what they actually scored. Furthermore, as of this evening, the sites that were designated to score ELL exams were not operational today and might not be operational tomorrow. There is still a large number of ELLs whose exams have not yet been scored. Who is going to score these exams? If the scoring sites with teachers who are specifically trained to read ELL exams are not scoring them this week, does that mean that the still remaining ELL exams are going to be scored by a very frustrated group of teachers this weekend along with the general city-wide pool of exams?
Not only are these tests unfair to English language learners. This scoring process means that ELLs are going to take yet another hit because they are not being scored fairly either.
Graduations are happening, and schools are figuring out what this means for the many ELLs who often have to wait to the last minute to find out if they are going to graduate. But there are longer-term consequences as well. As the tests have gotten more difficult to pass because the standards have increased, ELLs are going to continue struggle to overcome these hurdles, but appear to be receiving very little support from the system, which seeks to hold these students accountable. Furthermore, as the teacher evaluation system comes down the pipe, what does this kind of grading system mean for the teachers and schools who serve these students?
When we first started the scoring process last Friday, I was very confident that this process could not only be more efficient and fair, but could mean an increase in instructional days because teachers would need less time to administer and score the exams. I have lost all faith in this system at this point, and I am incredibly disappointed in the mayor and the NYC Department of Education for allowing this to happen. All of these glitches should have been anticipated. I myself predicted back in May that exams might get lost on the way to Connecticut, and sure enough, the Daily News reported that 80 Regents exams are nowhere to be found. When my students come to me to ask what happened with their Regents exam scores, what should I tell them?