English Competency Test Gets Mixed Grades From Experts

    A bill that would require school boards to create a standard for English competency as a graduation requirement has reinvigorated the impassioned debate over the best way to teach English language learners and measure their progress. Later today the governor will introduce his education reform bill, which is expected to address the issue. Everyone agrees that Colorado’s high school graduates should speak English, but how to accomplish that remains a point of sharp contention.

    A bill that would oblige each school board to create and implement a standard for English “competency” as a graduation requirement is opposed by some educators, who see the measure as a fragmented approach to learning and an infringement on a district’s right to local control.

    Senate Bill 098, sponsored by Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, declares that the inability to easily communicate in English not only limits and isolates the individual, but creates a safety hazard for the wider community.

    A majority of the members of the Senate Education Committee agreed; the committee voted 5-2 to approve the motion.

    “I look at this bill as an assurance that all students would know the basic skills of English by the time they graduate high school,” said education committee member Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora.

    “It calls for districts to establish a competency test, and when they do that and have small learning groups, it is possible to move all students to basic competency in English, which is very important,” she said.

    Mitchell, who did not respond to requests for comment, has promised to withdraw his bill as long as English competency is addressed in Gov. Bill Ritter’s education reform package to be introduced later today.

    Despite the uncertain future of SB-098, many educators are uneasy about a legislative order for English competency that is not pegged to a statewide standard. Since the measure would vary district to district, students who moved around would have to jump over a moving hurdle, resulting in uneven application of the law.

    Charlotte Ciancio, superintendent of Mapleton Public Schools, says the bill takes a complex, interrelated skill set and reduces it to an over-simplified call for competency – which is not defined in the bill, other than with a vague statement that people be able to “navigate” within society.

    “Kids should graduate with proficiencies and competencies in lots of areas,” Ciancio said. “If we legislate every skill that a student should have upon graduation void a comprehensive look, we will have a fragmented and ineffective system.”

    A major concern among the bill’s opponents is that an English-competency requirement might force some students to forgo remedial courses like math and science.

    “If you can’t speak English you are greatly limited in this country, so I don’t think this bill is a bad idea,” said Ricardo Martinez, co-director of Padres y Jovenes Unidos, a community group that works for better education for Hispanic youth.

    “But just learning English on its own doesn’t make you smarter. If we put one subject above all the others, we’ve automatically excluded these students from attending university. It’s necessary to learn English, but there are other subjects that help determine one’s quality of life.”

    But Williams says English Language Learning classes would never supplant core curriculum.

    “Maybe the students would miss photography or art, but ELL classes, which are electives, never interfere with core classes,” she said.

    Williams says the bill would be stronger if it called on the state Department of Education to define the competency standard. But after conversations with ELL teachers in her district, Williams is confident that when ninth-graders are aware of the standard and have enough time to prepare, they will have little trouble satisfying the requirement.

    But critics point to immigrant students who come to Colorado late in their high school careers. These students, they say, might have to spend additional semesters in high school learning English, which could frustrate them enough to drop out altogether.

    Williams counters that these students would benefit from the extra instruction.

    Beyond the impact on individual students, SB-098 raises questions about the right of school boards to make the decisions and set the standards that affect students in their district. 

    “Boards of education have the right and responsibility in this state to establish graduation requirements for their students,” Ciancio said. “Most boards consider the curriculum as a whole and not as fragmented or isolated content. This bill infringes on that right.”

    Josh Schachterle is an ELL teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver, where nearly a quarter of the students are classified as English language learners. Schachterle questions the motive behind a mandate for English competency – no matter where it comes from – if there is no fair, objective way to measure such a standard.

    “The decision of whether or not, as well as how to measure competency, and the standard by which it would be judged, should be decided by the schools themselves, not the legislature,” he said.

    “Forcing each district to come up with its own definition of English competency makes the bill seem like nothing substantive but instead some kind of attempt to make it appear as though the problem of English competency were being sufficiently addressed by the legislature.”

    The second reading of SB-098 will be put off until after Ritter introduces his education reform package, the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, later today. The governor’s bill is expected to address English-competency issues.

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