A student from Las Sierras Academy uses a dictionary to translate quiz questions from Spanish to English.

Why English learners see this mandatory exam as an ‘unjust’ barrier to graduation

NEW ORLEANS — It’s testing time again for public school students in Louisiana. For many who did not learn English as a primary language, it’s also an anxiety-inducing reminder that a single test could impact their futures.

Louisiana is one of 11 states that require high school seniors to pass a standardized test to graduate, even if they have a 4.0 grade-point average and perfect attendance.

One of tens of thousands of English language learners (ELs or ELLS) in the state, Karen is “muy preocupada” as she prepares to sit down to take the test over the next two weeks. All of the test components are in English, which she is still mastering, with the exception of math, which is offered in Spanish. A majority of English learners don’t graduate on time, and recent data suggests that phenomenon could be linked to the test.

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“I feel nervous, but at the same time I feel annoyed because the moment you sit down in the chair and open the laptop for the exam, you see the huge mountain of questions all in English,” Karen, who speaks Spanish and who asked to use her first name only. “You look at it, and you feel like ‘Wow,’ how will I do this?’ The teachers can only help by giving us a dictionary, but we will never finish if we have to translate the entire test word by word. It’s why I’ve failed before.”

“I feel like [the test] is unjust, if it keeps me from graduating,” said Karen, who arrived in the United States from Honduras three years ago.

Louisiana’s mandatory state testing is returning after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19. From the end of April through May, public school students in grades 3 through 12 must take the LEAP, the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, which tests students on core concepts, including English, math and history or biology.

While the test was on hold during the pandemic, there was about a 7-percent spike in the graduation rate among English learners. Advocates, pointing to that bump in graduations, have challenged the fairness of the test.

Teacher instructs classroom of English Learner students

Emma Merrill teaches a biology class at Las Sierras Academy in New Orleans in November 2021. It is the first program offering intensive support for the city’s estimated 700 newly arrived students. Photo by Aubri Juhasz/WWNO

“It was stark. It was also so infuriating. It blew me away to see that the one variable caused such a big sea change,” said Cheruba Chavez, a member of EXCELL, a coalition of educators and community organizations that is pushing the state to expand pathways to graduation for English learners.

As a newly arrived student, Karen spent her first year as an English learner in virtual classes due to the pandemic, which left her struggling with little or no access to quality instruction tailored to her needs. As a result, Karen said, “my mind would go into blank mode because I didn’t understand anything.”

Once the pandemic subsided, Karen returned to the classroom and improved her GPA from a 2.0 to a 4.0. Even so, she still failed the all-important test in her junior year. Students in Louisiana can take portions of the test prior to their senior year.

When Karen learned she didn’t pass the exam, she was upset and disillusioned.

“I closed myself in my room to cry,” she said. “I felt like everything was falling apart, and it felt like it was all for nothing.”

This is not uncommon. The LEAP has proven to be a test few EL students can pass, especially for most newly arrived students, and state data illuminates the disparity. The 2019 state graduation rate shows that 80 percent of all students in Louisiana earned a diploma, but only 41 percent of English Learners graduated. Furthermore, Louisiana had the second-worst high school graduation rate – 31 percent – in the country for English learners for the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Office of English Language Acquisition, the federal office that supports ELs. For comparison, the median graduation rate for the nation’s estimated 5 million English learners for the same school year was about 68 percent.

Education advocates say many ELs drop out in their junior year because the LEAP test can be an overwhelming obstacle.

“If there is a very limited chance that you will graduate, why persist? You see peers dropping out. You see them making it through four years with great grades but not graduating; they’re asking what’s the point,” Chavez said. “As they see it, you can just as easily drop out and work and take care of the family…if the possibility is slim that you’ll graduate.”

The effects of state-mandated high school exit exams have been well-documented in several studies. In general, exit exams have produced few of the anticipated benefits – the ability to track academic progress and identify students’ needs – and have led to unintended consequences. As one 2022 Brown University study found, states that require exit exams for graduation have seen an associated increase in high school drop-out rates, which has a larger impact on students who are most at risk to drop out from high school, including English learners, students of color, and students experiencing poverty. 

There has been, however, a glimmer of hope over the last two years. When the state waived its LEAP requirement due to the pandemic, the graduation rate for English learners’ increased significantly from 41 percent to 48 percent, according to state data.

Emma Merrill, director of Las Sierras Academy, a high school program in New Orleans, saw the effect firsthand. Only 25 percent of her students graduated in the last school year that wasn’t disrupted by COVID. When the mandatory testing requirement was lifted during the pandemic, all of her seniors graduated.

Students at Las Sierras Academy, a one-year immersive program for newly arrived students, work to develop their English language proficiency.

Students at Las Sierras Academy, a one-year immersive program for newly arrived students, work to develop their English language proficiency. Photo by Jessica Kelly/Las Sierras Academy

 

Las Sierras Academy is a one-year program housed at a local charter school that offers extensive services for students who have entered the country in the last six months, and it has a waitlist. Part of the EXCELL group, which stands for Expanded Criteria for English Learners in Louisiana, Merrill coauthored a plan urging the state Department of Education to consider alternative pathways for ELs.

“When I saw that 100 percent of my kids were walking across the stage and getting their diploma with tears in their eyes – as opposed to tears in their eyes for not graduating – I was inspired. I cried,” Merrill said. “It’s very easy to see what was standing in their way.”

Merrill said it is why students have put in extra time for this year’s test, which comes at great cost. Many students also have responsibilities outside of class like part-time jobs, and night shifts at hotels and restaurants to help pay rent or hire lawyers for their immigration cases. Still, she expects some will fail the test due to language deficits or because they will age out of Louisiana’s public school system when they turn 21.

“I have one scholar who has taken the test for four years in a row. She absolutely wants to graduate. She gets straight A’s in all her classes, but she’s feeling less motivated,” Merrill said. “She is super concerned and asks me every day, ‘What happens if I don’t pass?’ I tell her that we’ll just keep trying.”

While there are several contributing factors to the low graduation rate, “the COVID waiver really solidified that this is one systemic barrier that we can universally erase with just the stroke of the pen,” said Chavez, who is also an educational diagnostician for NOLA Public Schools, the school system in New Orleans.

The impact of putting the test on hold was immediate, she said. “We could have been doing this all along and have better opportunities for so many kids. It’s why we should continue to do this.”

The Louisiana Department of Education (LDE) said it’s been examining the issue for years and acknowledges the disparity in the state and across the nation. 

“EL students face a dual challenge in having to develop both academic English proficiency and content knowledge in the different subject areas,” state Department of Education spokesperson Matt Johnson told the NewsHour, adding that “language is the roadblock to English Learners’ successfully passing these assessments.”

LDE says it needs to study the test-to-graduate issue further.

“As any good researcher will tell you, you cannot take one or two data points and extrapolate to a trend,” Johnson said. “Eliminating these assessments may lead to a higher graduation rate, but you would need multiple data points (a robust sample size) over several years.”

As a result, this year the test will count again. Due to pandemic learning loss, advocates believe graduation rates may dip even lower than pre-pandemic levels. 

“My biggest fear is the cohort of kids we’re about to lose. The kids who put in the hard work and stayed in school during the pandemic while they could have been working, but they persisted,” Chavez said. “I’d hate to see the loss of graduates that Louisiana will have because we didn’t keep this protection.”

Advocates like Chavez and Merrill note that 39 states have alternative graduation pathways and point to programs in California and Texas, where 69 and 77 percent of their EL students, respectively, graduate, compared to Louisiana’s 41 percent.

EXCELL’s proposal would align Louisiana schools with other states’ graduation requirements. It calls for English learning students who have been in America for less than seven years to take the LEAP and English proficiency tests and meet all other graduation requirements. But, if a student fails a core subject on the LEAP test, that student would have an opportunity to show their understanding of the material in another way, such as through a portfolio. 

Supporters of the proposed changes believe this would mean students can focus on learning more English instead of repeating courses just for the test. 

The proposal for expanded options has the support of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), the governing body for NOLA Public Schools. In October, the board passed a resolution supporting the change, but it does not have the power to override state achievement standards.

Student in class

Las Sierras Academy students read, speak and write in both English and Spanish in every class. Photo by Jessica Kelly/Las Sierras Academy

“OPSB is outraged by the differential in graduation rates for English Learners in Orleans Parish, with only 34% of this population meeting all graduation requirements,” the resolution said. “OPSB believes that this disparity is not indicative of the academic capabilities of English Learners, but rather the unjust barriers rooted in racism and Euro-centric notions of achievement.”

Addressing the needs of the nation’s EL students is a challenge for public education today. According to state data, Louisiana students with limited English proficiency have grown by 35 percent from 2016 to 2021. ELs account for 4.2 percent of the state’s public school students. Among the most common languages spoken by ELs at home in Louisiana are Spanish and Vietnamese.

The LDE spokesman said offering the assessments in a student’s native language may offer a solution, but only if they are fluent in reading in that same language.

“This allows the opportunity to measure their content knowledge rather than their ability to master the English language,” Johnson said. “However, the availability of these assessments is limited, costly, and greater research and development is needed to create these assessments for valid and reliable use.” 

Karen said that after passing a recent practice exam, she’s feeling better – “muy segura, muy preparada” for this year’s LEAP. Still, if she fails, she believes her dream of becoming a nurse will slip away.

“If I don’t have the opportunity to graduate, I would be working very hard, possibly in the hotel or washing dishes in a restaurant, as opposed to if I graduated, I would have better job opportunities to help people,” she said.

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