Passing tough for English learners
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 8, 2005


Karina Bland

Fabiola Resendiz is determined to graduate from high school, studying about states' rights and reading In My Enemy's House by Carol Matas in the quiet of her bedroom.

She came to Arizona from Mexico a year ago and, in that short time, has jumped from beginning English as a second language classes to advanced, a feat that typically takes three years.

Resendiz, 17, a senior at Carl Hayden Community High School, has a near-perfect grade-point average, but her English isn't perfect. That could dash her dreams of getting a diploma.

Starting with the Class of 2006, students must pass Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards to graduate. It's proving difficult, as 23,800 of 63,500 seniors still need to pass AIMS. It's even harder for English-language learners.

Of the state's 4,521 seniors who are learning English, only 734 have passed the exam. In the Phoenix Union High School District, where Resendiz goes to school, only 6.5 percent of senior English-language learners have passed, or 48 out of 739.

The state estimates that about 4,500 seniors who have passed their classes will flunk AIMS and not get a diploma. Another 16,200 seniors will drop out before graduation, AIMS or no AIMS, based on annual dropout figures.

Resendiz has two hopes, one she has pinned on herself and the other on a Phoenix attorney she has never met.


She may have passed

Her first hope: She may have passed AIMS in the most recent round of testing, given over three days in October. "I did the best I could," she says. "I know I did better, but it was still very difficult."

Her second: Tim Hogan, an attorney for the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, last week asked a federal judge to exempt 4,000 seniors who are learning English from passing AIMS to graduate.

Hogan won a federal lawsuit forcing the state to better teach Arizona students who are learning English. Yet, years after the 2000 decision, Gov. Janet Napolitano and lawmakers still are battling over how to do that. The cost could be as much $200 million a year for an estimated 185,000 Arizona children, many who were born here and are citizens, though their parents are undocumented immigrants.

Hogan contends it's not fair to require AIMS to graduate when the state has not done its part for kids learning English.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne's answer to that has been to say it doesn't make sense to give a diploma to students who can't function in English.

The judge is expected to decide early next month.

Resendiz should receive her latest test results just after that.


Fascinated with history

Resendiz is fascinated with U.S. government and history. She went to summer school and tutoring on Saturdays. She says simply, "I want to learn more."

Karen Grimwood, a teacher and chairwoman of the English as a second language program at Carl Hayden, says, "She's so determined."

Her parents sent her to Arizona to live with her brother, 25, and sister, 23: "They want me to be successful, so I can get a good education and a good job." She misses them.

In the English as a second language program, Resendiz is taught in English but her classes are smaller and students often work in groups or pairs. They may do, say, five revisions of an essay instead of three before turning it in.

She watches English-language television shows and practices her new language in her head. Most of the people she knows speak Spanish.

Resendiz passed the math portion of AIMS this spring but still must pass reading and writing.

For Resendiz and students like her, AIMS is as much a language test as it is a test of what they know, says Joan Mason, director of programs for English-language learners in the Phoenix Union High School District. Twenty percent of the state's high school English-language learners are in her district.

They should be tested and expected to make progress, Mason says, but catching up to their peers in English can take five to 10 years. AIMS was designed for kids who grew up speaking English.


States make allowances

Five states, including New York and New Mexico, allow students to take high school exit exams in their native languages, Mason says. Or, tests can be altered to make them easier to understand for non-English speakers without changing content.

"We're not saying they can't do it," Mason says. "We're saying certain recent immigrants just haven't had the time to gain the language skills needed."

If Resendiz had moved to Arizona at 6 instead of 16, she likely would have no trouble with the AIMS test.

She is among 95 seniors in the English as a second language program at Carl Hayden, all but 11 despairing about passing the AIMS. Teachers pull students in for help after school and on Saturdays.


Struggling on exam

In October, some struggled over the exam, starting at 8 a.m. and finishing after 2 p.m., instead of in two to three hours as most students do.

For many, Mason says, their families can't afford for them to continue their studies after this year. They will have to go to work. Without diplomas, Mason says, "We're really condemning a group of high achieving students to a lifetime of limited opportunity."

Resendiz looks at the ground when asked what she'll do if she doesn't pass. She doesn't want to think about it. If she didn't pass last month, she'll have a chance in the spring, but the results likely would come too late for her to graduate with her class May 25.

She doesn't want to get a GED because she has done the work. She wants to wear a cap and gown and for the whole world to know she earned a diploma. She wants to frame it and hang it on the wall.

Without a diploma, she could go to community college, continuing in ESL courses.

But this diploma, this one piece of paper, she says, will give her the life she wants. She'll go to college, live in her own house and, someday, travel to places like Hawaii. She wants to be a journalist.
This diploma is her dream.