ST. PETERSBURG — When Rami Abraham came to the U.S. from Syria in 2007, he was looking to turn his life around, graduate high school, enroll in a technical school and embark on a successful career.
Yet despite excellent attendance and grades, Abraham, a senior at Enterprise High School in Clearwater, won’t be graduating with his high school diploma at the end of the year unless he passes the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
And with Florida schools moving to a new standardized test and education standards next school year, both of which promise more reading and writing, passing the test is looking like more of a long shot for students like Abraham, who speak English as a second language.
Abraham is not alone. In Florida, only 11 percent of 9,320 English Language Learners, known as ELL students, earned a passing score on the 10th-grade level reading test last year — a graduation requirement. The statewide passing rate for all 10th-grade students was 54 percent.
The numbers are even lower in the Tampa Bay area. Only 7 percent of the 139 10th-grade ELL students in Pinellas earned a passing score on the 2013 FCAT reading exam, compared with 52 percent of 10th-grade students district-wide. In Hillsborough, 10 percent of the 992 10th-grade ELL students passed the reading test, while in Pasco 12 percent of 76 passed. Previous years’ scores tell a similar story.
“One of the hardest things for me is to see these students working very hard to get through high school and finish their classes, and the only thing stopping them from earning their diploma is their reading FCAT,” said David Johnson, a teacher at Enterprise. “We’re asking them to make several years of learning gains in the short amount of time they have before they age out of high school, and that’s incredibly difficult.”
Students at Enterprise, a charter school, already are at risk for dropping out of high school, Johnson said. Many students, who can be as old as 21, work full-time jobs and have children. Some also have completed a bulk of their high school work in their home country, and Florida schools accept those transfer credits, said Johnson, who has taught ESOL students for five years.
Yet of the 19 ELL students Johnson taught this year, only one passed the test thus far and is on track to graduate with a standard high school diploma at the end of the year.
The American Institutes for Research is creating the replacement test. Under the Florida Standards, taken from the Common Core standards that will be shared by a majority of states, reading and writing skills will be part of every subject, from lengthy word problems in math to essay requirements in science.
Many, such as advocates from the Florida Parents Against Common Core, worry the new tests will be too difficult for native-English speaking students to pass, let alone students learning course content and a new language at the same time. The state anticipates a sharp decline in grades for students, and consequently schools and teachers, during the first few years the new standards are fully adopted.
About 17 states currently translate tests or publish instructions in multiple languages, according to George Washington University’s Center for Equity and Excellence in Education. Advocates from the national League of United Latin American Citizens are pushing for Spanish versions of the tests to be created, but that doesn’t solve the problem of getting ELL students to pass basic English requirements.
Cheryl Etters, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education, said the FCAT provisions currently in place for ELL students likely will remain under the AIR exam. Under state law, all ELL students have to take the standardized reading tests unless they have been in the country less than a year and a majority of the student’s ELL committee determines an exemption is appropriate. However, even exempt ELL students have to take the Comprehensive English Language Learning Assessment, and the writing, math and science portion of the FCAT, no matter how long they have received ELL instruction.
If the FCAT, or the new AIR test, proves too difficult, students can use the SAT or ACT. Most ELL students find the ACT easier, even though it is timed, Johnson said. While students can take a whole school day to complete the FCAT if they wanted to, it also makes a very long school day and students’ minds tend to wander, he said.
If students don’t pass the tests, they earn a certificate of completion stating they passed their high school course work and can retake the FCAT, SAT or the ACT until they pass it. However, if the student qualifies for free or reduced lunch, which most ELL students do, they can only get an ACT waiver for their first two tries. After that, they have to pay the $35 testing fee, and ELL students have a historically high dropout rate.
“They don’t have a learning disability. Their only barrier to mastering the grade-level content is language, and language is best learned through content,” Karac said. “The foundations of every lesson are the language standards, and all that extra practice with real-world application will be a benefit.”
As schools become more diverse, expectations are equaling out for students, Karac said. By 2050, the number of Latino students, the fastest growing school-age demographic, is expected to surpass the number of white students in American schools, according to a recent study by George Washington University’s Center for Equity and Excellence in Education.
In Pinellas, the ELL population grows by about 10 percent each year and has increased more than 25 percent over the past five years, Karac said.
“If you think ahead, lowering the bar now for ELLs would not do them any favors or do us any favors,” Karac said. “If we lower the bar for a student population that will eventually become a majority of the workforce, our future lawyers and teachers and mechanics, and we don’t have the same high expectations for them, would that be the nurse or the doctor that you would want to see in 40 years?”