Florida should allow students learning English to take tests in other languages | Opinion

Fabiola Santiago

There’s little more challenging — and rewarding — in education than helping an immigrant student learn English, some teachers will tell you.

The kids are often highly motivated. Their parents sacrificed so much to bring them to a new country. They’re lucky to be here, and for the most part, they know it. Everything is riding on their excelling in school.

Expectations are high.

But, as they struggle to learn a new language, here comes the all-American practice of formula testing to measure your worth (yes, that is what it boils down to).

In Florida, all kids in grades K-12 have to take the Florida Standards Assessments, FSA for short, in English Language Arts and Mathematics, and in grades 5 and 8, the Statewide Science Assessment. They measure whether students have learned what they’re expected to know, and these timed tests are no walk in the park for your average student.

Can you imagine kids who don’t know a lick of English in front of pages and pages of questions that for them are, in essence, gibberish?

It’s a frustrating exercise for both teachers and the more than 265,000 Florida students in that predicament.

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Here’s how one teacher described the test-taking scene to me: “It breaks your heart because they just look at the walls and don’t know what to do.”

Add to the impossible task the fact that some immigrant children aren’t even literate in their native languages, and you have to ask the question: What’s the goal — to teach English or to break students’ spirits?

Legislature can fix it

Forcing students who don’t yet speak sufficient English to take difficult assessment tests that native speakers have a hard time passing is counterproductive, a foolish enterprise the Florida Legislature can easily fix.

Lawmakers just haven’t wanted to take it up, even when federal guidelines call for “accessibility features and accommodations” that “must level the playing field so tests accurately reflect what students really know and can do.“ In Florida, where 80% of newcomer students speak Spanish and Haitian Creole only, that means developing testing in the state’s most-used languages.

This session, the idea of letting English learners take tests in their native languages has some Republican support for a change, reports the Tampa Bay Times under the headline: “Is 2020 the year Florida okays testing in Spanish?”

We can only hope so.

Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, speaks during the Senate special session concerning Gov. Ron DeSantis’ dismissal of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel on Wednesday Oct. 23, 2019, in Tallahassee.
Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, speaks during the Senate special session concerning Gov. Ron DeSantis’ dismissal of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel on Wednesday Oct. 23, 2019, in Tallahassee.

Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, has filed legislation, SB 678, and Miami Democrats Jason Pizzo and José Javier Rodríguez have joined her as co-sponsors along with Kissimmee’s Victor Torres Jr. and Tampa’s Janet Cruz. Most importantly, Miami-Dade Republican Anitere Flores, deputy majority leader, is also a valuable co-sponsor. She can not only effectively work across the aisle, but like Taddeo, has a front-seat understanding of the issue.

One out of five Miami-Dade students are English-language learners (ELL) — and the state ranks third in the country in ELL population. Although Spanish is the primary language spoken, there are 300 others.

“I was one of those kids,” Taddeo, who came from Colombia when she was 17, tells me. “I took the ACT and have a copy of my score. I got an 8 [in a scale of 1 to 36] and I knew that 8 was not representative of my abilities. Clearly, look where I am today.”

A companion bill, HB 515, has been filed in the House, sponsored by Republicans Vance Aloupis of Miami and Ana Maria Rodriguez of Doral, and is backed by Democrats Susan Valdes of Tampa and Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando.

All together, they make up a formidable team.

This is an election year and Latino voters are being avidly courted by both parties.

As Taddeo describes the mood in Tallahassee: “We’re talking about this issue.”

It’s a good start, although the bill has opposition from powerful lawmakers like Republican Manny Diaz Jr. of Hialeah (go figure that one, politics over constituency), who chairs the Education Committee.

Access and opportunity

The kids who don’t speak English are failing the tests.

And Taddeo’s bill gives parents the choice of whether they want their children tested in English or another language, whether it’s a school readiness test in kindergarten or standardized testing in high school.

Fear not, English-only crowd. The goal is for them to learn English, do their best, become somebody, contribute to their communities.

For some kids, head-first immersion into English works just fine, and in one to three years, they’re ready to make the transition from conversational English to academic English, which are two different things.

Others need more time, even when teachers can tell they received a solid education in their homeland. Others have lived through hell and are more troubled than a test in any language can fix.

Whatever the case, constant practice-testing and nerve-wracking standards testing in English-only isn’t getting the job done. The idea is to close the achievement gap.

Yet, what has prevailed is the argument that the state won’t give these students any breaks, so teachers need to get them used to the testing setting and formulas so they have a better chance at passing.

Yes, we know they’re not going to pass the test, but ... It makes no sense.

And I wonder: What’s the real reason we’re putting these kids through this stressful situation? Wouldn’t they have a better chance if they could understand the material?

Opening up choice can only help, not hurt.

My only concern is that the “other language” choice wouldn’t be available to the 20% who aren’t Spanish or Haitian Creole-speaking.

Maybe legislators don’t see this population as much, but Florida teachers do.

The Bengali-speaking girl from Bangladesh and the Vietnamese boy in an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) class full of Spanish speakers in South Florida, for example, feel more isolated than the rest of the English learners.

And they, too, deserve access and opportunity.

But don’t let the complexity of that task become an excuse for not solving a big problem for the 80%.

If what we want is what’s best for the children, then the Florida Legislature should approve testing in other languages, too.