Harsh reality of exit exams
Arizona Daily Star

Experts: Students who fail test may become burden

By Jennifer Sterba


Tucson, Arizona http://www.azstarnet.com/dailystar/dailystar/40215.php

The community needs to act now to prevent more than 5,000 Arizona high-school juniors not fluent in English from becoming a financial burden, local professionals and educators agree.  

Nine out of every 10 high-school juniors identified as English Language Learners - or students not fluent in English - failed the math and reading portions of the state AIMS test last spring.  

In contrast, between four and nine out of every 10 mainstream students in the same grade failed at least one portion of the test.

 All students, beginning with the class of 2006 - now juniors - need to pass the exam to earn their high-school diploma, which nowadays is the minimum amount of education a student needs to be considered hirable.

If most of the students not fluent in English don't get diplomas, they may not be able to find jobs to support themselves and their families.  

"It starts with the individual and that individual not being able to provide for themselves," said Oranté Jenkins, senior program coordinator for Jobs for Arizona Graduates at Flowing Wells High School.  

"Then it touches each and every one of our lives."  

The Jobs for Arizona Graduates program helps students learn study and leadership skills while working toward getting a job.

 Individuals without diplomas won't be able to pay for their basic needs in life, including shelter, food and health care, Jenkins said. Then the community is looking at higher unemployment, a larger homeless population - even a higher crime rate.  

"No one has come out to say what are we going to do with these students," said Elizabeth Gonzalez-Gann, 2005 chair-elect of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "It's going to affect the entire community. I think the Hispanic community should start looking at that now.  

"If we wait until it's on top of us, it's too late."  

All students can take a battery of tests in English, Spanish or French to obtain a GED, or General Equivalency Diploma, between 16 and 18 years of age. Both Pima Community College and the University of Arizona accept GEDs in place of high-school diplomas in their application process.  

But there are currently waiting lists of students applying for their GED. GED recipients do not have to take the AIMS test.  

State exit exams work only if resources are put in place to help all students pass and earn a diploma, said Keith Gayler, associate director for the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C.

 "Florida has put in place boot camps over the summer so students could have their English language lessons in addition to the academic content they needed throughout the school year to meet the standards on the state test," he said. "The solution would be something that would cut across all groups. It's hard for an exit exam to survive politically even if you only have 20 percent of your students not receiving a diploma."

 Louisiana, where 7 percent to 8 percent of students failed their exit exams last year, was the state with the highest percentage of students failing to earn diplomas because of the exams.

 Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne announced last week that he wants to spend $4.5 million on tutoring for all students who have failed at least one portion of the AIMS test - and $5 million more on help for schools labeled "underperforming" for poor academic performance.  

State educators have identified more than 6,000 Arizona students in the 11th grade as English Language Learners - having attended U.S. schools for four years or fewer.

 Mexican-American immigrants make up the largest portion of students labeled English Language Learners - accounting for nearly three out of every four students identified as non-native English speakers. American Indian, white, Asian and black students make up a much smaller piece of the ELL pie.

 Through what the state calls sheltered English immersion, students take one or more English-language classes a day. But their subject classes like math, English and science must be taught in English. During the first four years of learning English as a second language, the state separates their AIMS results from the schools' mainstream student population.

 After four years, the students are considered proficient enough by the state to be included in schoolwide test results.  

Students can learn a new language at a functional level in three to five years, but it takes five to seven years to learn it fluently, said Heidi Aranda, principal of Ochoa Elementary.  

Even native English speakers have difficulty understanding the formal, technical language on standardized tests, she said.  

"To really get a fair shot at a test, for the average person, it would take five years of learning a language," Aranda said.

 "We've put in place opportunities for after-school work, Saturday schools, summer school so they can work on English," said Jeannie Favela, Sunnyside director of Language Acquisition and Development. "We're asking students to do two things: learn the content and learn a second language. That's not instantaneous."

 Students in their first year of learning English at Sunnyside High School say they're determined to make it.

 "You're given two chances," said Alfredo Lopez, 18 and a junior at Sunnyside High School. "If I don't pass the first time, I'm going to study harder."

 "I want to go to the university," he said. "If I can't, I'll have some certificate that shows I graduated from high school."

 Denise Lopez - not related to Alfredo - understands the importance of passing the AIMS and getting a diploma.

 "I want to make a life for myself, get a career," said Denise Lopez, a 15-year-old freshman. "I'm not afraid. I just have to study."

 ● Sarah Garrecht-Gassen contributed to this story. Contact reporter Jennifer Sterba at 573-4191 or jsterba@azstarnet.com.