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Bipartisan education bill may let students test in their native languages; improve graduation rates

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Norine Dworkin

Founding Editor

Wednesday, March 31, 2021


Courtesy Alianza Center

"You can take the realtor license test in Spanish. Why do we have that in Spanish, and we don’t have the FSA in Spanish?"

My dad’s a radiologist and while he’s retired now, there was a time when he did locum tenens work around the state, filling in for radiologists who were on vacation or when there was no radiologist on staff. He especially liked working at this one hospital in the middle of a Hispanic community in Hialeah. He was usually the only Anglo around — he often joked that when he wandered into Publix or a pastelería, he felt like Hester Prynne with a scarlet “A” on his chest. He loved talking with the other doctors. The problem was, these physicians were working as orderlies and medical technicians. They were doctors in their own countries; they just didn’t know enough English to pass the medical boards here.

Dad always advised these talented doctors to relocate to a small Midwestern town where no one spoke Spanish. Two years total immersion, he counseled, they’d know enough English to get their medical licenses.

It's been known to work. 

However, a pair of education bills, working their way through the Florida Legislature, aim to help English language-learners (ELLs) pass tests without requiring a trip to the Midwest. The bipartisan bills — HB 711, sponsored by State Rep. Rene Plasencia (R-Orange, Brevard) in the House and SB 724, sponsored by Democratic State Sen. Annette Taddeo (D-Miami-Dade) in the Senate — would allow students to take tests used for kindergarten readiness, grade advancement and graduation in their native language. If the bills become law, tests would first be translated into Spanish and Haitian Creole; other languages would come later.

This will help level the playing field for students who understand the subject matter but still struggle with taking tests in English, explains Johanna Lopez, executive director of Alianza Center, an Orlando-based nonprofit outreach organization for the Puerto Rican community, which has put its support behind the bills.

If passed, the bills won’t make taking tests, like the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA), any easier. But they also won’t make testing unnecessarily harder for the 28,865 English language-learners in the Orange County school district. Third graders, for instance, must pass the FSA to advance to fourth grade. High-school students must pass the Algebra 1 FSA and the 10th grade English FSA to graduate and receive their diplomas.

Alianza’s Lopez, a former high school teacher, now OCPS School Board member, talked with VoxPopuli about HB 711 ahead of its hearing in the Early Learning & Elementary Education Subcommittee on Thursday morning.

Norine Dworkin: Why is it important for students to test in their native language?

Johanna Lopez: Many students have told me that they didn’t get their high school diplomas because they didn’t pass the FSA. Why didn’t they pass the FSA? Because it was in English, and their first language was Spanish. It’s very hard to hear about students with good grades — As and Bs — who aren’t passing the FSA. It’s not just with our Hispanic communities, it’s also with the the Haitian community. All students who speak another language have these challenges. I think it would be fair for them for them to have the test in their native language so that they can show what they really know. 

ND: Students come to this country and need to demonstrate proficiency in English. Aren’t they setting themselves up to not be able to get jobs or fill out applications if they’re not proficient in English? Isn’t there a standard they should have to pass? Why shouldn’t they have to pass that test to graduate?

JL: We’re not saying English is not important. English is very important. We have to learn English. We have to improve our skills in the English language. What we’re saying is even if you do the work in school, you’re not going to have your diploma because you didn’t pass the FSA test. The test is not being used as a tool for learning, it’s being used as an obstacle to obtain your high school diploma. Without a high school diploma, it’s very difficult to get a decent job. You can’t go into the military or any technical college or university.

Let’s think about all the people that come from other countries. They can go to our universities, and they don’t speak English that well. Maybe they know how to communicate, but we accept them, and we provide intensive English classes. Why are we not giving the same opportunity to our students who live here in Florida? We have other tests that you can take in Spanish. The realtor test for example. You can take that in Spanish. Why do we have that in Spanish, and we don’t have the FSA in Spanish?

ND: Research from Stanford University found that it takes about four to seven years for English language-learners to catch up academically to native English speakers. So the question becomes, to advance a grade or graduate from high school, are you testing the subject matter or proficiency in English? And to get out of high school, you’re arguing the focus should be on the subject matter.

JL: Exactly. Because English proficiency will improve. Students will learn English. They’ll learn English in a recovery year or when they get into university. We have different levels of English in university. At Valencia College, they take a test to gauge proficiency level, and then they can take classes to improve their English. When they improve, they can start taking the other classes.

ND: So, what I hear you saying is that the FSA is not a good barometer for whether English-language learners are prepared to advance a grade or to graduate.

JL: Exactly. It’s not the same thing to take a test with different subjects in English where you know the content but you don’t speak the language at the level you should know to pass the FSA.

We’re supposed to provide them with accommodations, like Google Translate or a dictionary, so they can be successful in tests during class. But with the FSA, you don’t have that time to do that in English. So if students have the opportunity to take the subject test in their native language they’ll do well because they already took the classes, and they know the material.

If we have native language assessment in other states we should have it in Florida, because we have a high population of English language-learners, and we have to provide that fairness to every student. Every student deserves to have an education in this county. Why are we creating obstacles? If they complete their goals in life, they’re going to be productive to this country in so many ways. It’s something that is going to be very beneficial to us, for our community, for our state, for our nation.

ND: What happens if students can’t pass the FSA?

JL: They won’t graduate or receive a high school diploma. In middle school, they don’t pass the class even if they have an A.

ND: That must be devastating.

JL: Of course. I had a student from Mexico, straight A honor student. She was the president of the Hispanic Honor Society. She finished, but she never passed what was called back then, the FCAT. She never passed it. She told me, “Ms. Lopez, it’s because I get so nervous, I’m not going to pass this. I will never pass that test.”

She was amazing, a real leader, a role model, a hard worker. But she didn’t pass the FCAT and never received her high school diploma. Now she’s living in Germany. She has a baby. She still hasn’t taken her GED (graduate equivalency exam). She was so frustrated because of the FCAT. If she could have taken that test in her native language, she could have passed, and we might have had a doctor in front of us. I follow her on Facebook. She told me she was glad we were supporting this legislation because there were a lot students who didn’t have hope in the future because they don’t pass the test.

When the governor waived the FSA last year, the graduation rate increased among our ESOL students (English speakers of other languages). So we can say that one of the factors for ESOL students not graduating from high school is the FSA.

Editor’s note: In 2019/2020, 96.2 percent of English language-learners graduated from West Orange High School; 98.1 percent from Windermere High School and 88.6 percent from Ocoee High School, compared with 2013/2014, the last time a report on ELL students was produced, when just 75 percent and 71.8 percent of ELL students graduated at West Orange and Ocoee high schools respectively. Windermere High School was not yet built.

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