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
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.