Huge numbers of students who don’t speak or read English well may be denied a high school diploma based on graduation tests that do not fairly measure their skills, a study released Tuesday suggests.
Many states are struggling to help those learning English as a second language. Such students — mainly immigrants — pass graduation exams on their first try at least 30 to 40 percentage points less often than other students, the Center on Education Policy found.
That performance has big implications, as almost nine in 10 limited-English students are expected to face such a high-stakes test in their state by 2012.
Graduation tests in math, reading and other subjects have become an increasingly common way for states to gauge whether students have earned a diploma — even though the content of the exams typically covers material learned through grades 9 or 10, not grade 12.
Such tests may not be an accurate way to measure what limited-English students can do, according to the center’s fourth annual review of the exams.
Some students may fail a math test, for example, because they lacked the English skills to understand the framing of a question, the report found. English learners also may not get enough time to learn the material covered on a graduation test because they spend a larger portion of their week learning English.
Overall, states with exit exams are in dilemma — they’ve been challenged to hold all children to the same standards, but in doing so, they may withhold diplomas from many kids with limited English. Almost all states with exit exams implicitly require students to know English to graduate, but high schools often find immigrant students are just getting started.
“The people in the states with these exams are troubled by the performance gap,” said Patricia Sullivan, the center’s director. “But they’re just not sure what to do about it.”
Over the last year, states with graduation exams have noticeably increased preparation, remedial work and funding to help students pass the tests, the center reports. But those strategies target the broad student body, not English-language learners, Sullivan said.
Graduation exams disproportionately affect limited-English students: 87 percent of them will have to pass a test to graduate in coming years, compared to about 72 percent of all U.S. public school students. Most students learning English as a second language live in gateway states for immigrants that have exit exams, mainly California, Texas and New York.
From 1993 to 2003, the enrollment of English-language learners in U.S. public schools grew by 84 percent, far higher than the 11 percent growth of the overall student population.
Nineteen states and growing
A total of 26 states have graduation exams in the works — 19 that currently require them, and seven others that plan to phase them in during the next seven years.
All states allow students to retake the tests if they do not pass, and most permit other options, too, such as allowing students to substitute a score from a college entrance test.
The high school exams continue to have little connection to college. Only one state, Texas, specifically aims to tie to its test to whether a student is prepared for college.
States are making the tests tougher, the yearly review found. But until core material is taught earlier in school and struggling children get more help, states won’t ask students to pass a test that covers all four years of high school, Sullivan said.
“If you have an assessment that two-thirds of the kids fail, you’ll hear about it,” she said. “You’ll lose political support for the exam.”