Original URL: http://www.nctimes.net/news/2003/20030526/11111.html

Many students fail key exams because English eludes them
North County Times, 5/26/03
 Staff Writer
Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles on the California High School Exit Exam.

Imagine spending most of your childhood as a decent student at your neighborhood school. As you grow into your teenage years, you earn pretty good grades. Maybe you make the honor roll. You play soccer and perform in plays, and you begin thinking about college and scholarships and life after high school.

Then your parents decide life may offer more to them in another country, where people speak a different language. They enroll you in school there, where you struggle to understand your teachers, counselors and friends.

You learn a few months later that you have to take a test. A big test ---- in a foreign language ---- that will determine whether you graduate, and what you'll be qualified to do after high school.

You fail it. A year later, you fail again. You're closing in on your senior year and you're starting to wonder how in the world you'll ever understand enough of the language to pass the test, get out of high school and move on with your life.

It's not fiction

Now you know how 17-year-old Vista High School student Martha Nieto and more than 770 other North County teens feel.

"It's a hard thing to think that maybe I won't pass. I think about that a lot," said Martha, a soft-spoken teen who came to the U.S. with her family four years ago from Mexico and dreams of becoming a police officer or a doctor. "I really am trying. I look at the page and understand some things, but not enough of the English. It's a lot of reading. I spend so much time figuring out what everything means that I forget the question. It's a mess."

Martha is not alone. More than 46,000 high school juniors still learning English throughout the state are failing the California High School Exit Exam, the test that next year could determine which students earn diplomas.

The exam is a standardized math and English test designed to measure whether high school students have mastered enough reading, writing and math skills to earn a diploma.

Without exception

The test was first administered in the year 2000 . When the Legislature approved the exam, its instructions were simple: Teens who want a diploma must pass the test; no exceptions. Its first consequences are slated to take effect for the class of 2004. But in the face of withering criticism and dismal passing rates, the State Board of Education this summer will consider pushing back the consequences of the test until the year 2007.

North County's non-native English speakers, who are from mostly Mexican immigrant families, are failing the test at an alarming rate compared to their English-speaking peers, and educators say that probably won't change from year to year.

Students labeled "English learners" ---- non-native speakers who are still learning English and do not speak or read the language fluently ---- make up about 16 percent of the enrollment of North County districts with high schools. But according to data from the California Department of Education, more than half of the North County high school juniors who have not passed the language section of the exit exam are English learners.

Persistent failure

Many have taken the exam two or three times and continue, not surprisingly to educators, to fail at a far higher rate than their English-speaking counterparts.

"I wish the state legislature could come out and watch these kids take this test. It would make them cry," said Bob Harman, director of secondary curriculum for the San Marcos Unified School District. "A lot of these kids have arrived with no English skills at all. They don't walk in, close the book and give up. They go through more than one pencil, sitting there for hours and trying to answer every question.

"It's not their fault or their schools' fault. If I went to Germany tomorrow and spent a year trying to learn German, and they gave me even an elementary school test in German, I'd fail it. And I have a graduate degree."

Achievement gap

Educators say language problems are one of the main reasons for a massive achievement gap between white and Latino students, a gap that is larger in North County than throughout San Diego County and the rest of the state on parts of the exit exam.

"When you talk about Latinos and achievement, you always, always have to look at language issues," said Gerry Gonzalez, director of the National Latino Research Center based in San Marcos. "Schools have no control over the level of English kids speak when they arrive. But that English level has a direct effect on test scores, creating an academic minority that is also an ethnic minority."

That worries people like Vista High School teacher Bill Daumen, who works with about 120 students learning basic English.

"These are, for the most part, bright students who simply haven't mastered the language yet, and the reality is that they could be punished for it," said Daumen. "I agree that there should be standards, and that we as teachers should be responsible for teaching those standards. But to hold students accountable for standards they can't understand, that is really tough."

More than Spanish

The exam is problematic for more than Spanish speakers.

While most of North County's non-native speakers are from Spanish-speaking homes, some speak a smattering of other languages, including Tagalog (the language of the Philippines), Vietnamese, and Mandarin.

Several of these students face the same exit-exam fears as their Spanish-speaking peers ---- except they generally face them alone.

High school junior Thanh Nguyen, who arrived in Vista from Vietnam earlier this year, took the exit exam less than a week after arriving in the U.S.

She spoke only a few words of English. The brand new Vista High School student filled in her name, then the circles on the answer sheet. She spent hours filling in those circles, slowly and deliberately trying to answer each question.

"It didn't really matter, though ... I could have just been putting any answer down," Thanh said through her cousin, Sandy Dang, who translated from Vietnamese. "I did what I could do, but I just filled in the blanks. I didn't understand it. I couldn't think in English."

Enemy No. 1: Time

Thanh, who likes basketball and came to the states "to make a life doing whatever I am best at here," has very little chance of learning enough English to pass the exam by the end of her senior year, Daumen said.

"The freshmen who come to us have a chance, they have years," he said. "But a month? Six months? A year? It doesn't matter how smart you are, it's not long enough."

Oceanside Unified School District Superintendent Ken Noonan, a staunch opponent of bilingual education and strong advocate for the exit exam, agreed.

"The enemy of these kids is time, pure and simple," Noonan said. "We've built up this false hope that a person can learn a language in a year or two, but it is just not reasonable to expect a teenager to learn a language well enough in two years to pass a test designed to measure the adequacy of 10 years of school."

Fixing the time problem for language learners may mean offering an extended high school program of five or six years instead of the traditional four, Noonan said.

But no school district has proposed such an extension, and while students who don't graduate may attend community colleges to earn their high school equivalency degree, it's becoming increasingly clear that hundreds of North County's immigrant students won't walk away with a diploma if they have to pass the exit exam.

"We've sold a bill of goods to Latino and other immigrant parents that led them to believe their kids could get an education and lead a better life here," Noonan said. "The reality is, for some kids, the exit exam will close the door on that dream."

Contact staff writer Erin Walsh at (760) 901-4090 or ewalsh@nctimes.com.