Schools need tools to help English learners pass exit test
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 11, 2007


Angela Minnici and Dalia Zabala

Mr. Diaz (pseudonym), a high-school teacher, sits across from us and recalls his experiences as an English-language learner: "I'm a product of the sink-or-swim method. I was a bright kid. I came to this country, and they gave me a thick social-studies book and a thick dictionary. And all day long, translate that - that was my whole education." He pauses, puts his head in his hands, and begins to shake. "I'm a 54-year-old man, and I still get like this," he says, trying to regain his composure.

During a focus group with 15 parents, a Spanish-speaking mother talks about the pressure her son feels after trying unsuccessfully to pass the state's high-school exit exam. Her eyes brimming with tears, she describes her efforts to console her son when the exit exam and other school situations "instead of lifting your boy, they finish him."

These are just two among the scores of stories we collected from teachers, students, and parents during 15 months of research in Arizona about the impact of the state exit exam requirement on English-language learners. While 71 percent of all students in the state pass all three subjects of the exit exam by end of 12th grade, only 20 percent of English-language learners do so. Our research made clear that preparing these students to pass the exam is an enormous challenge - one that will not be met unless the state Legislature and Department of Education stop arguing and give educators the resources and support necessary to adequately educate ELLs.

ELLs come to school with many different skills and needs. Some can read and write in their native language, while others are illiterate or have limited literacy. Some are immigrants who had a spotty or substandard education in their home country. One high school we studied served refugee students from many countries, legal residents whose education had in some cases been interrupted by war and atrocities.

Our study found that schools' efforts to prepare ELLs for exit exams are hampered by resource gaps - insufficient funding, overcrowding, a lack of appropriate teaching materials, inadequate teacher preparation, and difficulties recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers. For fifteen years, wrangling over the Flores case decision regarding adequacy of programs for ELLs has stalled momentum in addressing these resource gaps.

We understand why Arizonans are concerned about immigration issues. However, the majority of English-language learners are citizens. As the percentage of ELLs in Arizona public schools rises (right now it's 15 percent), the state's decisions about how to educate these students will have serious implications for the future of Arizona.

We believe that a combination of accountability and high expectations is needed, along with sufficient resources and support for school districts. Currently, the state has emphasized the accountability part of the equation but, with funding of just $340 per ELL (limited to only two years), has shortchanged the resources part. We urge the residents of Arizona, the Legislature, and the state Department of Education to acknowledge the challenges involved in preparing ELLs to pass the exit exam and to provide educators with the tools needed to do this tough job.

Angela Minnici is a senior research associate and Dalia Zabala is a research associate at the Center on Education Policy in New York.