Saturday, September 16, 2017

A Study in Stupid

There's an NPR piece about how Spanish speakers take longer to learn English than their Chinese counterparts. It's one of the stupidest things I've ever read. I've been working as a New York City teacher for over thirty years, and I've read more memos from more administrators than I can count, so that's saying something.

For one thing, it's based completely on test scores. To believe this, you'd have to assume that the scores are valid. That's a big ask. Here in NY, we have a test called the NYSESLAT. I was teaching an advanced class, determined by test scores, and the first thing I did was give a diagnostic essay. I did not make the students read a non-fiction passage about different types of cement and have them respond via multiple choice answers. I gave them something much simpler. I told them to write about what they did during summer break, or indeed anything else they wanted to write about.

Half of my students failed to use past tense even once. This is a distinct drawback when recounting a story. Yet somehow the very expensive NYSESLAT did not detect it. A whole lot of them neglected subject-verb agreement, a common thing among ELLs. After all, why bother with that little s marker when you only need it with third person? These things are pretty noticeable in writing, though, and if you did these things in a college entrance essay, I could easily imagine your getting bounced to remedial classes.

Several of my students could not produce more than two sentences. Yet they were on the cusp of proficiency, according to these tests, presumably created by experts. My improvised diagnostic says they were wrong. I also spoke with the students, and was not persuaded they'd hit any level resembling advanced. Of course, NY State doesn't say advanced. They say, "transitioning," or "expanding," for reasons that elude me utterly. But when you place these "transitioning" students in advanced classes, they're likely to lose opportunities to practice the basic English conventions they'll need to write successfully in college.

It's too bad, because we ESL teachers could certainly teach that stuff if students were placed properly, and if CR Part 154 hadn't reduced us to assistant teachers. Hey, it's not my fault if those kids are reading To Kill a Mockingbird and I'm just standing around helping with the impossible vocabulary.

Now the study does mention poverty, and that's certainly a factor in academic achievement or lack thereof. But to attribute lack of academic achievement to a particular language is nothing but bigotry and ignorance. If I've learned one thing from decades of teaching ESL, it's that no stereotype is valid. I've seen members of every group excel, and I've seen members of every group fail. I've seen ambition and laziness, excellence and failure in every group I've served.

It's offensive and idiotic to equate achievement with language. It not only assumes validity in tests that are likely total crap, but also falsely attributes its scores, low, high, or whatever, to language spoken. This is the kind of crap I expect to see on Fox and Friends. It's sorely disappointing to find it on NPR.
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