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A Storm in Storm Lake


A teenager of Lao descent, who was born in the United States, refuses to take an English-language-proficiency test and gets suspended from her high school in Storm Lake, Iowa. Then about a dozen students protest in front of the school to show their support for the student. (Hat tip to TESOL in the News Blog.)

As most of you know, schools are required by the federal government to give an English-proficiency test to students if parents say on a home-language survey that a language other than English is spoken at home. From the point of view of one of the students participating in the protest, asking only students who speak a language other than English at home to take such a test is "discrimination."

Does anyone think the student has a point? Was suspension an appropriate response for the student who refused to take the test?


Suspension was absolutely the wrong response to this student's action if the only infraction was standing up to a test that the student perceived as discriminatory. This highlights a real challenge with proficiency exams that can stigmatize language learners (as claimed by high school ELL in my own dissertation research).
Rather than be penalized, it is unfortunate that the student (and the others who supported her by demonstrating), weren't tapped for their energy and opinions to share their voices in a constructive examination of policy. Students, including language learners, have powerful voices and strong opinions about their education. Adults will hopefully seize this opportunity to work with them rather than in opposition to them.

Mary Ann, I notice you are very careful to write “From the point of view of one of the students participating in the protest....” Hmmm.....so you’re reporting only one side of the story? Are there more?

EL testing policies clearly discriminate against students who speak languages other than English by singling them out. They also make a valid comparison to their English-only peers more difficult by excluding native speakers from that pool of data. On top of this, parents sometimes falsify the information on the survey to protect their children and avoid the EL labeling. To reestablish confidence in the test, all students should be tested and the scores used in conjunction with other performance indicators for placement. We should never label students based on one survey or one test.

There are reasons why ESOL teachers need to screen kids to see if they are proficient in English. A girl who is in high school, was born here and has a proven record in school, doesn't need to be "screened" through a test. The girl would have been screened early in her school career and the ESOL teacher needs to gather and document the information. It can seem like harassment to always be questioned about language proficiency after being in school for so many years. It's also insulting.

I'm not totally clear on all the details of this story, but it sounds like another case of zero common sense. When the student took the test as a sophomore - did she pass it? If so, then why has she been asked to take it again as a jr. & sr.? Is she receiving English services? If not, then don't give her the test! Finally, if she (& her parents) refuse the test, then she is not eligible for services, & the school is not responsible (and probably won't receive $$) The point of the test is to identify the needs of the student. I fear this district is using the test only as a means to qualify for more money, regardless of the student's need (or lack thereof)

Maybe the students have a point. There is a prevailing argument (i.e. Zwiers, 2008) that all students including native English students require academic language proficiency to succeed in school.If this is the case then shouldn't all students be assessed in their academic English proficiency?

If the girl of Lao descent is already in high school, why is she being required to take a language proficiency test? The home survey (indicating the child's primary language AND the language most often spoken at home) should have been completed when she first enrolled in public school, presumably in Kindergarten or first grade if she was USA -born.

While I understand fully the need for schools to establish the language proficiency of each student, I believe that this policy should be required of ALL entering students, not only ones who declare a language other than English spoken at home.

From an educational view (and I have been working in education 45 years, 25 of which have been with ELL's), just because a family indicates "English" as the prime language, this is no guarantee that the level of English is suitable for academic success. Moreover, I have seen many, many families lie on the home survey, indicating English as the prime language,when it is NOT, because they do not want their children in "bilingual" programs.

In my many years of experience (I am ESL and Bilingually -certified), I sometimes have encouraged parents to submit a "Parent Denial' letter in order to remove their children from the "bilingual" programs, which, unfortunately, can perpetuate second-class sub-sets within schools, comprised of students who never quite reach the level of English that mainstream USA requires for world-class success.

The successes of my colleagues and me, as primary and as middle school teachers, are documented, but not promoted , because what we have done is to have taught kids in ONE YEAR in regular classes, (not ESL or "bilingual" settings), to acquire English! Excellent English!

Why is this not being noted? Because, sadly, bilingual education brings more money to schools ...and just plain, high quality teaching, 100% in English, does not.

When I taught my first primary "bilingual" class, a 5th grade in Texas (I had moved south to avoid the long winters of my home state, Maine), I was shocked. I had 19 kids, 18 of whom had been born in the USA, 1 in Mexico.

Why was I shocked? Because the one girl from Mexico, who had just moved to Texas from Moneterrey, where she had attended a "Dual Language Immersion" program, knew MORE English than all my other students, all of whom had attended school in the USA in "bilingual" programs!
Except for the one girl from Mexico, my other 19 students had scored 1 or 2 on the LAS oral language exam in both English and Spanish. (LAS exam is an oral, picture identification test...It is scored 1-5: 1 & 2 = not proficient in the language; 4 & 5 = proficient in the language being assessed.)

By Texas law at that time (1994-95) we had to "maintain" their Spanish language by teaching Spanish 45 minutes a day. I chose to concentrate on vocabulary development, as, to me, a productive, fluent vocabulary level is the single, biggest indicator of someone's intelligence.
(TO ME...studies may not support this...but it is my personal bias.)

By late May, 1995, the LPAC clerk (Language Proficiency Assessment Clerk), Geraldine, came to my classroom and asked me, "What did you do to you kids this year?"
I had no idea what she was talking about. So I asked her what did she mean. She told me that in September, 19 of my kids had scored extremely low in the LAS exam, and now everyone, yes, everyone, had scored 4 or 5 on both Spanish and English.

I had no answer for Geraldine that was specific. This was the very first time i had ever taught a "bilingual" class. What did I do???
I taught.
I taught the regular primary program, the math, science, reading, social studies, 100% in English, never, not once, translating. Nor did I lower my vocabulary to a 5th grade level. I spoke to them as if they were students in the university classes which I sometimes taught.
For the 45 minutes of required Spanish, I showed a 5-10 minute filmstrip, and based conversation and basic Spanish writing skills on the day's film.
Their Spanish had been so low originally, that when I showed the first filmstrip, "El Potrillo Gris", the students asked me what "potrillo" meant. When I said it was a "colt", they asked me what a "colt" was. i had to answer, "a baby horse". From there, we moved forward!

Why are we, in the USA, not looking more into Dr, Virginia Collier's and Dr.Thomas's research which, over longitudinal studies for more than 20 years, are proving that we obtain most students' long-term language fluency successes, NOT in ESL, pull-out, or bilingual programs.....but, rather, in dual language immersion programs, where the children learn English with their peers, and a second language, about 50% - 50% of the time...and they do excellently.
They are not separated into "bilingual education classes", which are NOT truly bilingual...These are merely "Learn-English-and=drop-your first=language" programs.

Why in the USA are we hearing nothing of CLIL and the Common European Framework for Language Learning?? This is a sound, common-sense, approach to language acquisition.
The USA certainly can learn from Europe, where most schools graduate students speaking 3 or 4 languages, including fluent English. I do not want to hear the excuses that we often give in the USA that "only a small percentage of European kids go to high school", because those arguments have been false for the past 25 years!

I am now a consultant. I work in Mexico with the Secretary of Public Education in the state of Coahuila, and I also work in Europe, mainly with governmental education agencies in Spain,in several provinces, as well as for the Comunidad de Madrid, with the development of language programs. I help with the planning and implementation of English teaching.

The involvement of Europe, and now Mexico, with CLIL and the Common European Framework is enviable. In Mexico and in Spain, where learning fluent English is the key to economic success, they are concentrating on strong language development, not relying on ANY specific program, book, or gurus.

CLIL (Concentrated Language Integrated Learning) is a component of the European Framework, and is based on the logical idea that you learn a language better, faster and deeper when you learn subjects using the target language. Simple and effective! Our own USA- born Dr. Stephen Krashen, has been talking about "comprehensive input" for years. That's CLIL!

Why aren't we listening? More importantly, why doesn't the government get out of education and let the educators (i.e. teachers and educational academic leaders) do their things to get results...not an "administrator" who should concentrate on the operations of the school)

There is no one best way to teach! Stop pumping money into packaged programs. Encourage teacher creativity and dynamic teaching. Follow a simple, organized plan (such as the Common European Framework, and let teachers do their thing, with the CEF as a base.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. It s done and ready to use, according to the strengths and style of each teacher.

Madrid has 225 dual bilingual primary schools. (English - Spanish). In September, 2009, Madrid will open over 200 dual language middle schools. Subject-matter teachers are right now being trained in the use of English in their subjects.

Teachers in public schools in Madrid, for example, have much more autonomy and authority than do their peers in the USA! For example, they do not have to use any specific book! They can even choose to use no text book. (What a horror for publishers!)

Their goal is to teach, transmit, inspire, encourage, and support ALL students in the acquisition of English and at least one other language. Guidelines of topics to be covered are given to the teachers. (Example: Climate Changes or Mammals)

Topics are grouped in "cycles", and can be covered, taught, discussed, expanded in each grade during the cycle as the teacher wishes and sees necessary for students' success. (CYCLE 1 = grades 1 & 2; CYCLE 2 = grades 3 & 4; CYCLE 3 = grades 5 & 6. )

They are having the successes that should be enviable to us in the USA.

Why can't we do what they are doing in Europe and Mexico?

(Again, readers, remember, most Mexicans who are on the border of the USA, the "illegals' that we hear about in the news, are not in the mainstream of Mexico, where the growing middle class is enjoying an unprecedented life style, and for whom their children are learning English in either public or private schools.)

How can we achieve world class schools in the USA?
Simple. Drop the politics. Reduce the idea of "adopted texts" and required subjects by everyone.

I sincerely doubt that I could be graduated from a USA public high school today, 2009.
Why? Three reasons:

1. I can not pass all the required subjects. EXAMPLE: In high school (1955-69) I had to drop out of Algebra II, and I failed physics, because I just didn't get them.
In university (1960-64) (gratefully) the Liberal Arts program at the University of New Hampshire allowed me to take either a science or math, not necessarily both. So I took and passed biology and geology. That flexibility is not allowed any more in most schools.

2. I used to do terribly on multiple choice exams, which most universities use in large classes. I thought I was dumb. Only when the old mimeograph machine broke down, and my geology teacher had to write 5 essay questions on the board, instead of the 100 multiple choice questions, did I (and my professors) find that I really WAS reading the assignments; I REALLY did know some geology. I was able to score 92% on that exam!

I subsequently learned to seek out courses where the professors gave essay exams so I could show what I had in my brain.

For me, multiple choice was multiple confusion.
I have subsequently taught myself how to succeed on multiple choice exams...and this tool, incidentally, is what I taught my students in middle school so that they passed the state exams.
For any doubting Thomases: We are not allowed to be with our own students when state exams are given. We monitor other classrooms; so no one can say I coached my kids!

3. The state exams are too hard and tedious for me. Vocabulary and English, and social sciences, I can do well. But forget math and science! I love science! I love general math and geometry...but algebra? trig? calculus? I can not do it. I have seen the exams. I do not understand the questions, so how could I complete the answers?
It would become "multiple guess" NOT "multiple choice",

i do not need to know advanced math. and......
And the truth...the real truth.... ( I feel guity saying this as a professional educator...BUT, I will)...
The REAL truth us that I have NEVER, EVER used any math, except general math, in my whole 45 years teaching/administering schools, and creating school programs.

I completed a Master's (1969) in primary education (only primary math and science), and a Ph.D. in "Educational Leadership".no math at all!

Now...I have plenty of work....at 67 years of age, I jet-set around, helping with staff development and the organization and implementation of school programs. I share ideas with others, so they, too, can consult with others. I even give away copies of my Power Point seminars to attendees who want them.

Currently, I am writing this from Tampico, Mexico where I will give 2 workshops today and tomorrow on "Enhancing Your Students' Reading and Writing Skills".

Next Wednesday, I fly to Madrid, where I will be working throughout Spain for 5 weeks, giving courses about developing teaching techniques, and helping politicians to use me and other Spanish educators to form programs for English in bilingual schools.

Then on to Texas, where I will give workshops on "Learner Preferences and Dynamic Teaching".......Then back to my home in Mexico.

In my spare time, I write books for teachers, and I am working on a series of English books for pre-school for an international book publisher. I do workshops for various publishers, some of whom are rivals.....but since I like to promote international education and cooperation, they all put down their gloves, and allow me the latitude to be creative in the presentation of educational approaches.

Why this litany of what I am doing?
Because I want to prove two things:

1. That my parents' ideas of the power of "education and never-give-up" philosophy are the bases for my success. It is in the affective domain that current educational policies only talk about, but does not support!

2. I am a living, walking example of a person who probably would not have been graduated from high school 45 years ago if the standards then were the same as now.
I am NOT implying that today's standards are higher or lower than two generations ago; they are simply different.
Today, we have a cookie-cutter mentality, with the erroneous belief that if we give everyone the same courses, with "high academic content", that they will all come out the same: "intelligent, well-educated, prepared for college, life-long learners"...and all the rest of the hype we are using to kid ourselves that education is improving.
Every time we "up the ante", we lose more kids.
That 40% drop-out rate is reality.
Yes, statistics can be manipulated.
I am not impressed that state "test scores are on the rise".
Who cares?

What actually counts is what do these people in the 40% drop-out group do with their lives? Are they happy? Did they ever graduate from high school, later? Why? Why not? Do they feel successful? Fulfilled?
Or, are we producing third class citizens because they have received a third class education?

Open up education to be run by the educators, NOT by the politicians. Let teachers teach! Forget the pursestrings determining what, how, and when we teach and with what tools.
Hire great teachers and support them by giving them more autonomy. Forget the labels, the exams, the required-for-everyone advanced level math and science courses....

In my career, with a few exceptions, I have had bosses who let me "do my thing". They let me experiment with curriculum. They let me invent and share with colleagues a simple but effective lesson plan format. They looked the other way when i refused (politely, of course) to use my students' class time for " daily review of state exams."... boring, tedious, hateful, and a stupid waste of time.

My principals allowed me to teach my way, the way my teachers had taught me (and I learned), including 95% time on-task, using multiple intelligence activities, and high level Blooms, with critical thinking topics, using techniques of multiple and emotional intelligences, years before Gardner and Goleman appeared on the scene.

Then, in preparation for state exams, 2 weeks before the loathed state, high-stakes tests, I taught my kids multiple choice testing techniques and test writing skills.

That's it. Documented success. Between 92-96% of my students, including mainstreamed students, bilingual students, and gifted students , passed the secondary science exams, all six years that I was at that middle school.
The same, exact kids: only 40-60 % passed in other subject areas with teachers who were more conventional than I, practicing daily for the #%^&#@ state exams.

Why? Because kids got sick and tired of the daily, boring practice sessions end the emphasis of "the TESTS"!
So when the REAL exam came, students had no interest in doing their best.
Multiple choice questions (some of which even I can not discern!) , writing by "formula" (a sure way to kill creativity) are tools we use to "assess" our kids.

In Europe, some exams, such as the Trinity College London Exam in Spoken English are given orally, for 1st to 12th grade students, and for adults, too. the exam is one-on-one! An examiner comes to the school site for the time it takes to test each student. These are external exams, scored immediately, assessing the oral English language level of the students. Young children have a private, one-on-one oral exam for 5 =6 minutes, questions dialogue, identifying picters, etc.
In 4th grade, the kids have a 5 minute presentation and also the dialogues, etc. By high school, the students have 25-30 minutes privately with the examiner.

The Trinity College London English exams are given in 165,000 schools in 55 countries, world-wide, including Spain and Mexico. Trinity, finally, is coming to the USA. The Trinity Examination Board approved the USA expansion because schools are beginning to want to have external results, not in-house results, which vary from state to state. There are the Trinity oral exams only, (which are terrific to plot a student's oral proficiency), and there also are written exams, if schools want them.

There is a free teacher's scope and sequence of vocabulary and topics, by grade level. Trinity does not endorse, sponsor, or require any specific texts. Good teaching obtains good results!

Trinity exams are surprisingly inexpensive, especially considering they are individually-tested exams, and are certainly are much more economical than the state-operated exams. Trinity results come in ONE day; state exams take weeks to score.
This exam functions well, because as we all know, you can not write anything if you do not have a fluent, oral vocabulary first! What you write comes from your brain; if it is essentially empty of fluency in the target language, what can you write?

(If anyone is interested, I know the person assigned to the USA testing program. I will be glad to pass on his e-mail to you for more information.)

Language acquisition is easy. No matter where we would be born, we will learn the language.
My grandchildren are in Maine. There is no Spanish in their home, nor in their schools. Sadly, the USA is far , far from recognizing the importance of early childhood language acquisition.
So...being the person I am (some say I'm weird, which I accept as a compliment) ), I invite my grandchildren, one at a time, to live with us in Mexico for a year to learn Spanish.
One might come in 4th grade, another one did not decide to come until 8th grade, BUT, the bottom line is that they ALL learn 100% fluent Spanish, like a native!
Some people think my grandchildren are Mexicans because they learn all the idioms, 100% fluency, how to read, write, speak, change money, pesos to dollars, etc. I envy them because I learned Spanish when I was 40 years of age, and will always speak with an accent, although I am very fluent.

How did I learn Spanish? I went to Mexico for 6 weeks and took part in classes of music, art, history of Mexico, vocabulary development, short stories. I learned in 6 weeks enough to build on independently. I did NOT study grammar because I wanted fluency. Grammar is HOW a langauge works. Why learn it before you really know the language well?

The "natural approach" (Kreshen, et al) is how I and my grandchildren learned Spanish. It is how many Europeans and now, many Mexicans, are learning languages.

Incidentally, my oldest grandson almost 19, is living in Mexico with us. After he leaned Spanish in one year, he returned to Maine, but got bored with the rural life, so returned 4 years ago, to live and travel with us. He now is working on the acquisition of other languages. He found a skill, an ability, that he never knew he possessed because he did not have the opportunity in his primary or middle schools: ....learning languages as a native-speaker.

Back to the girl with Lao ancestry......How small-minded is the school to have expelled her! How repressive!
Certainly, unless she just arrived to the USA, they should have had a previous record of her accomplishments. If she is fluent enough to have rejected taking the test, certainly someone with 1/2 a brain could / should be able to evaluate her English fluency level?

There may be bits and pieces of this story missing, so I may not be able to make a complete assessment of the girl's situation.

One thing for sure, we are "testing crazy" in the USA! We think that everything can be reduced to a numerical score. While we, in education, tout Gardner and Goleman, and "meeting the students' needs", we are hypocritically rejecting and damaging 1000's of students every year.
Our country, the richest on earth, has a 40% annual drop-out rate counting the students from middle school who continue to graduation.

They do not drop out because of lack of intelligence or ability. They have been disenfranchised by our schools. They have been labeled since pre-school as "economically deprived",or "non-English speakers", or "from broken homes", and the label sticks, It affects them socially and psychologically.

My father only completed 3rd grade in rural Maine. But, he loved to read poetry, plays, historical novels, and to listen to classical music. My mother, a child of immigrants, went to school at age 7 with not one word of English. She learned and she was graduated from high school in the Great Depression. My parents had 5 children, and all of us have been graduated from college and hold degrees' some of us have a bachelor's, others a master's, and others a Ph.D.

Why? Because we all had teachers who encouraged us, stimulated us, and challenged us, and we had parents for whom education and never-giving- up were the only keys for success. Time has not changed. These still remain the keys to success.

Let's forget the labels, the exams, and the latest fads.... Let's just teach the best ways we can.

Change begins with YOU!

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