When Will We Learn?

“The 5 million ESL students make up about 10 percent of all students in the nation.” When I read this sentence in an article from US News, so many things came into perspective. I have always been aware of our growing  ESL student population, but seeing the numbers written down like that really makes you think about our education system and what they  should be doing to accommodate this growth. Well, when it comes to standardized testing, the answer to that is not much. The article I mentioned earlier, A Tough Test for Second Language Students, highlights one Elementary school struggling to meet federal requirements while arguing that not all their students learn the same, let alone express achievement by taking the same standardized test that is clearly catered towards English speaking students.


My mom is a Kindergarten teacher in a school with quite a few ESL students. I hear all the time how sad she is to watch these ESL student get left behind and looked over because they simply do not look good on paper. “If your student’s scores are not representing the excellence of this school then you need to figure out a way to get them there.” There is absolutely no concern for making sure the children are actually learning and getting the help they need. Similar to the story in the article above about a student named Carolina, my mom has witnessed so many students who truly understand the material and are showing signs of progress. However, because they do not speak English, there is no way to convey their achievement on paper. Much like the argument made in this article, my mom and her colleagues have expressed multiple times the need for some other way to measure a students learning. Test scores are in no way a representation of a students potential or intellect.

This also reminds me of a discussion I had in one of classes here at UNC Chapel Hill. We were discussing standardized or intelligence testing and how far a long they have come. While, in my opinion, they are still terrible it is nothing compared to some of the questions that used to be included in these tests. For example, there would be a question asking the test taker what to do if you encountered a crying child that was all alone on the street. While the right answer was to call authorities, that might not be the case for every culture. We discussed how this question might be answered much differently by an African American student who has grown up observing a culture who experiences far more violence from police officers. So, because this student answered “I would call my mom and ask for help,” does that mean he should fail that question? In his mind, that is exactly the right thing to do.

Another question might have something to do with what you would see at a museum or a grocery store. The problem with this is that not every student has the privilege to go to museums, and not every culture experiences the same sorts of grocery stores. The point is, these tests have done a much better job of taking out culturally biased questions, and sticking to the basic curriculum.

With that being said, why haven’t we realized the challenge ESL students experience when taking a test in a language they barely know? How have we not realized that there is not only one way to measure a students progress? Why can’t we be creative in populating a variety of tools that show case a students learning? When will we learn, that not every student fits into a perfect little box that we can slap a perfect little test score on?

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2 Responses to When Will We Learn?

  1. madisongoers1 says:

    August, I love that you addressed this relevant problem with standardized testing and a challenged faced by students learning English as their second language. There are so many students locally in the Chapel Hill-Carrborro Schools that are learning English and consequently affected by the English curriculum. Last semester in my Language Acquisition course we talked a little bit about bilingualism and challenges that students face, especially with standardization, literacy, and common core standards. It truly breaks my heart that these children are looked over in the school system and I think that is the same challenge that your mom faces in her classroom. In addition to the struggles ESL students are facing in the schools, having parents who speak a different language presents additional responsibilities, such as a child translating for their parents in everyday settings.

    We live in such a diverse country and should value children who are bilingual or who speak a language other than English. Would it cause any problems to administer standardized tests in various languages? This may help to solve the problem that students face in regards to not understanding the English wording of a test. But I do agree with you with the inability to fit every student in a “perfect little box” that scores ____ on a state/grade-level exam. But with that being said, does a standardized test even measure a students knowledge or learning? Because that problem with the testing structure and standardization cannot be resolved by offering the same test in various languages. I would love to hear your thoughts and whether you think this could be feasible!


    • august0628 says:

      Thanks for the comment! I’m really glad you liked the post. I do think that providing the test in multiple languages would be a great start to this issue. It would start to close the gap for these ESL students. However, in my opinion that is only a small fraction of the problem. There are some concepts that do not translate perfectly from English to other languages. So while the student may be grasping the overall concept, it can be very difficult for them to express or find the correct english words for what they are thinking/ trying to convey. This is where the most work needs to be done in terms of adopting new tools to measure a students intelligence or progress.


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