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Exit exams pressuring English learners, study says

Immigrant students seen as targeted by state requirements

WASHINGTON -- 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 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 nine 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, released yesterday.

Some students may fail a math test, for example, because they lack 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 a dilemma -- they have been challenged to hold all children to the same standards, but in doing so, they may withhold diplomas from many students with limited English. Almost all states with exit exams implicitly require them to know English to graduate, but high schools often find immigrants who 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."

Based in Washington, the nonprofit center is an advocate of better public schools.

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 are aimed at the entire student body, not English-language learners, Sullivan said.

Many high school teachers are not trained to help students with minimal English, which means those children do not receive high-quality instruction, said Deborah Short, director of language education and academic development at the Center for Applied Linguistics.

''Do we want a lot of high school students who don't have diplomas -- and therefore have a lot of limited opportunities after high school -- because they are still acquiring English?" she said. ''We need more of a policy on what to do with these children."

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 US 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 US public schools grew by 84 percent, far higher than the 11 percent growth of the overall student population.

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.

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