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Regents Exams and English Language Learners

Like many of her high school classmates, Sharzina Halim, a senior at Curtis High School in Staten Island, will be taking her Regents exams in early June, and she is nervous about them. Her graduation is primarily dependent on her ability to pass the exams in Math, Living Environment, and History, but her native language is Bengali, and she is worried that, despite the extra tutoring she has been getting, she will not be able to understand certain words.

To graduate in New York State, high school students must pass five Regents exams -- in English, math, global history, U.S. history and government, and a science. Of the more than 310,380 high school students in New York City, an estimated 36,867 of them, or 12 percent, are students who are in the process of learning English. The Regents exams present a major hurdle towards graduation for English-language-learner, or ELL, high school youth, a group that already has the highest dropout rate of all students, with more than half of the English language learners in the class of 2001 failing to graduate in seven years. .

Parents and advocates are concerned that students are not being tested in their subject knowledge, and that too often, a student’s low level of English robs them of the chance to score well on their math, science, or social studies exams. Many of these students have a great deal of knowledge in the subject area in which they are being tested (like earth science or math), but because the tests are administered in English, they may score poorly because they do not know English well.

Data from the State Education Department indicate that fewer English-language learners take the Regents exams, those who take the exams are more likely to fail, and those who do pass are more likely to pass the exams with lower scores. Given the dropout crisis facing these students, the challenge for the Department of Education is to ensure that they have a fair shot at passing their Regents and being able to graduate from high school.

Test Site Accommodations

To address this challenge and to give these English-language learners a better chance at passing the state’s exams in math, science, and social studies, New York State permits test site accommodations to ensure that they are tested on their knowledge of the particular subject, not their English proficiency. There is no uniform system or standard across the state, but in most cases, they may be entitled to more time, separate accommodations, and the use of bilingual dictionaries or glossaries while taking the test. Only dictionaries and glossaries that give direct translations are allowed; those that give definitions of words are not permitted, as they may give the child an unfair advantage.

In some cases, students may be entitled to take the test in their native language or have an interpreter read them the questions in their native language. Those students whose native language is Chinese, Russian, Haitian-Creole, Spanish, or Korean, can have access to tests translated into these languages. Translated Regents tests include Math A, Global Studies, U.S. History, Earth Science, and Living Environment. Oral interpretation can be made available for students who speak a language not covered by the translated tests. In either case, these students may have the option of writing responses in their native language.

While test site accommodations can go a long way toward helping students like Sharzina, parents and advocates are concerned about the lack of information regarding the types of accommodations available throughout the state and inconsistencies in administering these accommodations. There also are serious concerns about the quality of the translated Regents tests available.

English Language Regents

While the subject-content Regents exams are not intended to gauge English proficiency, the English Language Arts exam is intended to ensure that a student has achieved a certain level in reading and writing English. The English Regents constitutes perhaps the greatest hurdle to graduating high school for ELL students. In 2001, English-language learners in New York City scored 20 percentage points below mainstream students in the English Regents Exam. In 2003, only 33 percent of those English-language learners who took the exam passed the English Regents.

Immigrant students, parents, and community leaders have been advocating for the Board of Regents, the Governor, and the State Legislature to address the dropout crisis by establishing an alternative English proficiency test for late-arriving students to be able to graduate. One proposed alternative is to use a native language arts exam in combination with the State English as a Second Language Achievement Test (NYSESLAT) – an exam that English-language learners already must take each year to gauge their English proficiency and progress in ESL or bilingual classes.

Opponents of this idea say that creating different standards for English-language learners does them a disservice by not preparing them as well as those students who are native English-speakers. Advocates of the alternative test counter that an alternative exam would set an appropriately high standard that reflects the background and experiences of recently-arrived students. They argue that requiring recently-arrived students to take an English Regents exam designed for native speakers who have grown up speaking, reading, and writing English unfairly sets up these students to fail and drop out.

State legislation (A.4313), introduced by Assemblyman Peter Rivera and approved by the State Assembly Education Committee, is currently pending that would permit recently-arrived English-language learners to pass a native language arts exam and English proficiency test as an alternative to passing the English Regents exam.

Advocates are urging the city to help students prepare for the Regents by increasing funding to provide much-needed additional quality instruction for them and by creating an English-language learner dropout prevention initiative that would substantially increase funds for those at risk in high school to receive more English and subject-content instruction and test preparation.

Deycy Avitia works on education reform for The New York Immigration Coalition 

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