It’s a crisp autumn morning. Pencils are sharpened, students are remarkably on-time, breakfasts are eaten and parents have encouraged their children to try their best. It’s October 11, and almost every single student is preparing to take either the SAT or the PSAT, moving one important step closer to college. All except one particular population of kids, that is. The English Language Learner (ELL) students went to the zoo.
It seems like some sort of twisted punch line. The SAT and ACT tests are one of the key factors required for applying for college, but both are only offered only in English. The complete failure to adequately accommodate, or even prepare a large portion of the United States’ student population represents a fundamental flaw with the American education system.
It’s true that the number of schools placing less emphasis on standardized tests has reached an all-time high with over 200 test-optional schools in the USA. This seems significant until one considers that there are over 2,000 accredited universities in this country.
The barriers in the application process do not begin or end with the exclusion from the most pivotal admissions tests. The whole process is already blatantly corrupt based solely on its expense: from taking the test itself to the score report to sending scores to the tutors that cost around $200 an hour, it couldn’t be less geared towards the wealthy and white. And some steps have been taken to break down this barrier bit by bit. DCPS offers financial support to get a waiver for the tests, and the forms necessary to apply for financial aid are also available in Spanish.
Even so, by failing to offer translated versions of these tests, or even directions in another language, institutions like College Board prevent disadvantaged groups in this country, such as young immigrants and those who speak English as a second-language, from realizing their full potential. If given the opportunity, they are capable of attending a college that will prepare them for a rigorous and rewarding career in the future, and perhaps begin to equalize some of the gaps in achievement and financial stability that represent society’s most pressing inequalities.
Looking at it with this lens, it becomes clear that the SAT not being offered in Spanish is really just the tip of the iceberg. “It raises a bigger question. If [their] English isn’t fluent enough to take the test, then is the English going to be sufficient for them to be in a classroom where the lecturer is speaking in English?” said New Heights Coordinator Beth Perry, who also speaks Spanish and has been supporting Wilson’s Latin American immigrant population. “What’s the best way to learn English? What’s the best way to prepare for college with english as a second language?”
What we should be asking ourselves is how to best support these students. Suffice it to say, one thing that definitely does not help them is forcing them to graduate in 4 years. There has been an incredible nationwide push to increase graduation rates in recent years; Wilson’s own graduation rate went from 80% in 2013 to 91% in 2016, an 11 point increase in just 2 years. But only students who are able to graduate in four years count towards the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR), and those who take five years or more count against the rate, and are considered drop-outs. So there are students who come into Wilson already having two or three years of high school, who may be experiencing all kinds of cultural and personal changes an could really benefit from having another year of high school to increase their proficiency in English and be better prepared for the future. And as of right now, DCPS tends to deny them this small courtesy.
Principal Kimberly Martin explained in an interview conducted for an article in October that she has denied requests for students who apply for the extra year, because so much rides on the rate increasing that she, and the school, cannot afford to absorb significant blows the graduation rate.
One student who could benefit from an extra year is senior Yeison Menendez. “I don’t feel prepared,” he said in an interview conducted in Spanish that was translated for the purpose of this article. “I need to take a class or something to better prepare me to enter and work in the city.”
On December 19, around 20 ELL students are going on a field trip to charter school Carlos Rosario that offers adult education, GED classes and certification in fields like medical assistance as well as culinary training. Many ELL students from Wilson anticipate attending classes there after graduation.
Menendez did take the SAT, but he did not excel. “My level of English impedes me a lot,” he said. When asked what Wilson could do to better support students like Menendez, he cited mounting pressure to graduate quickly.
“What Wilson specifically is doing right now is pushing us to graduate more quickly. Many us of are significantly below what is required to graduate,” he said. “I suppose what we need is a little more time.”
that the goal will not be raised from there. “Why? Some students shouldn’t finish in four. Some should finish in five,” said Wilson.
So that inspires a little optimism. But the issue of graduation rates, and the underlying problem of quantifying students as mere data points encompasses so much, such as unit and credit recovery, grade inflation, and the recently proposed graduation requirements that further decrease what is required to get a diploma. We’re seeing the effects of this out of Ballou right now.
Should the graduation rate even be a metric used to determine the quality of a school and it’s students? Probably not. Should the SAT be offered in Spanish? Probably. Does the ELL curriculum need an overhaul to ensure better English proficiency? Absolutely. But above all, we need this school, the district, the government, whoever is in charge of these things to reassess, and stop seeing students as numbers. We are people.
GRAPHIC BY ELENA REMEZ