Wednesday, February 06, 2019

The ELL Graduation Rate

There are so many things wrong with this metric that I don't know where to begin. The logical spot, as far as I'm concerned, is these kids don't speak English. I'm not sure exactly how many people consider that before coming to conclusions, but you don't just wave a frigging magic wand and render people fluent in a new language.

I mean, could you go to China, with no knowledge whatsoever of the culture or language, pass all the tests, and graduate high school in four years? Could you do it in six? If you couldn't, would it conclusively establish your teachers suck? Would it establish that you suck?

What does it really mean? I'd argue it means a whole lot less than what people say or think it does. Even if it's a valid metric, which I'm not assuming, it's a misleading one. Here's why--if we take the number of ELLs who've failed to graduate over four years, and make them a percentage of our overall student body, it doesn't include the ELLs who've tested out and are no longer ELLs.

Let's say, for example, we have 100 9th graders who entered high school as ELLs. Let's say 50 of them test out before graduation. We then have a pool of only half of what we began with. So if only 20 of the 50 graduate on time, or in six years, or whenever, it looks like we've failed 60% of our ELLs. If we take this metric as valid, which again, I do not, that percentage is inflated twofold. It's therefore misleading and invalid, even by the ridiculous standard set forth by the city and state.

Of course any standard fails to account for the backgrounds of our students. I get students who halted formal education at grade four. They walk into high school with severely limited skills in their first languages, and I am expected to magically teach them how to pass the NY State English Regents Examination. Never mind that they are unable to write clearly in their first languages. They may represent ten percent of the students I serve, and not all are identified as such by DOE.

Then there are the students who don't want to be here, which I'd also roughly estimate to be around ten percent of the students I serve. It doesn't matter how good their native language abilities are. If you have been dragged here against your will by your parents, if everything and almost everyone you love is across an ocean somewhere, it can be really hard to assimilate or acclimate yourself to American culture.

Sometimes students find a comfort zone. They make friends with only students who speak their first language. They speak only their first language at home, and engage on laptops and cell phones in only that language. They find as many classes as they can that utilize as little English as possible. Then they meet me, some idiot who insists they communicate in English. What's up with this guy? Doesn't he know I'm turning around and going back to wherever at the very first opportunity? Doesn't he know English is a waste of time, that I hate it, I hate the food, I hate the music, and I hate him too?

And then the state looks at me and says look, only this many kids passed the Regents exam, and only this many kids did well on the NYSESLAT, so you suck. By that standard, I may suck indeed. Now I will prepare my students for the English Regents exam as best I can, because if they don't pass it they won't graduate. As someone who supports them and wants them to move ahead, I will do that.

It's not really what I want to do, though. I don't really sit up at night and worry that they don't know literary terms I'll never come across in the New York Times Book Review. I don't have existential angst because they can't write a canned essay formula in order to answer a question they may or may not see again in ther lives.

I really worry because they have needs that are quite distinct than those set forth as vital by the geniuses in Albany, who are so smart they need to know nothing whatsoever about language acquisition. I will try to serve my students despite the standards, not because of them. I know only too well that those who graduate, those who pass the test, may or may not be competent enough to handle English at a college level. Unlike NY State, I know there is no substitute for time. Unlike NY State, I know that academic English is a portion of our lives, not the central reason for all existence.

And unlike those who criticize the ELL graduation rate, I know it's a meaningless metric, tossed about simply to determine exactly who sucks. While it's me who supposedly sucks as much as anyone, I'm 100% certain I know what ELLs need better than any overpaid Albany functionary. And I will keep fighting to get them what they really need, with little support and against tremendous odds. If the critics wish to join me, they are more than welcome.
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