Sunday, October 16, 2005

Speaking English Is No Longer Necessary

We have fewer ESL students than we used to after 9/11, perhaps 40% fewer. Still, we ought to be able to come up with a reasonable method of testing their English.

In New York City, we had a test called the LAB that was used for 20 years. It had a version A, and a version B. For ease of scoring, the answers to both versions were identical. As the test was never updated, students started stealing it, and several told me that they’d received the answers via email. That explained the students I had who spoke no English, yet somehow passed.

After 20 years, some wise individual decided to revise the test. Unfortunately, the new test is extremely basic, and I’d say any student with one year of study could pass it. This was highly problematic until it was supplanted by a NY State exam called the NYCESLAT, and please don’t ask me what that stands for.

The new state test shared the low level of the city test, but the folks in NY State arranged it so you seemed to need a perfect score (at least) to pass it. This resulted in a highly critical column in the NY Times written by my favorite education columnist, Michael Winerip. The state was upset by this, so in a relatively short time (2 years) they revised the standard. Now, like the LAB, it's far too easy to pass.

The NYCESLAT, for reasons never explained to me, though, can only be given in the spring. Therefore, students who arrive at other points in the year (the majority) are given the LAB test.

Last year, I taught Transitional English, the last ESL course we give, in which I taught novels. I had one young girl who did no homework, no reading, and never participated in class. One day I informed her that if she did not start doing the homework and the reading, she would fail. At this, the girl ran crying from my class to her guidance counselor, who placed her elsewhere.

The girl was right to be upset. The test falsely indicated that she was ready for advanced English. It doesn’t take forever (as some “bilingual” programs seem to advocate), but it takes a few years for teenagers to acquire a second language. It really behooves state and city officials to get off their collective keesters and design a valid test.

My test?

“What’s your name?”

“Where are you from”

“How long have you been here?” or ungrammatical but simplified:

“How long are you here, in the United States?”

Beyond that I’d want to see writing samples.

Students who lack mastery of such basic verbal English should not be placed beyond level 2 of basic ESL. Talking is a huge part of language, and to place kids who can’t speak in classes where they’re expected to study Shakespeare does no service to the, or indeed anyone.

Why can’t all those smart people in Albany and Tweed figure that out?
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