HSAs through the eyes of an ESOL Blazer

Feb. 17, 2004, midnight | By John Visclosky | 16 years, 11 months ago

Test poses challenges for staff and students alike

Monday through Friday he works at Radio Shack after school to help support his family. On the weekends he holds another part-time job at Taco Bell. Only during lunch does Blair junior Jonathan Avila, a student in ESOL 3, have the time to study for the High School Assessments (HSAs).

Zero percent of Blair ESOL students passed the English I HSA, according to recently released scores. Although the assessments will not be a requirement for graduation until 2009, increasing pressure from the Maryland State Board of Education has forced ESOL students to accelerate their study of English and ESOL teachers to base curriculums around the HSAs.

Joseph Bellino, ESOL resource teacher at Blair, knows that it is difficult for ESOL students to keep up with native English speakers on the HSAs because of language and culture barriers. Bellino believes that the three and a half years that the average ESOL student spends at Blair is not enough time to master English. The academic efforts of ESOL students are further hindered by the limited educational opportunities in their native countries, Bellino says.

The dictionaries provided to students when taking the HSAs are little help to ESOL students for whom there is no written language. "If I have a student who speaks Creole, and there isn't a Creole dictionary, is the test fair to him?" asks National, State, and Legislative Government instructor David West. "My students are feeling frustrated, bitter, and some have lost motivation."

Thirty percent of Blair's current population are not native speakers of English, and 330 students are currently enrolled in ESOL, according to Bellino. Besides schoolwork, many of these students carry the added burdens of night classes and jobs. "I did a survey of my students and a majority of them have night school, watch relatives after school or have to work," says West.

ESOL 4 senior Yesika Rodriguez attends academic support classes twice a week during lunch and once a week after school. Rodriguez believes that once the HSAs become a graduation requirement, very few ESOL students will be able to earn diplomas. "The test is hard because there's a lot of English, and to write in English is difficult," admits Rodriguez. "I think many ESOL students wouldn't graduate if they had to pass the tests."

Part of the problem with the HSAs is that ninth grade for beginning ESOL students focuses on conversational rather than academic English, according to ESOL instructor Ailish Zompa. Because the HSAs are administered in 10th grade, many ESOL students still have difficulty composing written responses. "It is harder to write responses in English than it is to speak the language," says ESOL junior Feven Wondwosen.

Kate Harrison, a spokesperson for MCPS said that the Maryland State Board of Education is considering lowering passing scores on the HSAs to accommodate ESOL and special education students. Although the assessments may be modified, Harrison believes that they are a necessary part of the curriculum. "There has to be some kind of testing measure to make sure everyone is on track," says Harrison.

Though ESOL senior Solange Francois recognizes the need for standardized tests, she believes that some questions on the HSAs are unbalanced to ESOL students. "I don't think the test is fair," says Francois. "ESOL 2 and 3 students can't understand some of it. There should be a new exam for non-native English speakers."

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John Visclosky. John Visclosky is, suffice it to say, "hardly the sharpest intellectual tool in the shed," which is why he has stupidly chosen to here address himself in the third person. He's a mellow sort of guy who enjoys movies and sharing his feelings and innermost … More »

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