Saturday, November 25, 2006

Institutional Bias

Say something about the inability of Florida officials to hold fair elections, and my dad, a resident of the state that almost assuredly chucked my 2000 Broward County presidential absentee ballot into the Atlantic, is likely to get pretty fired up. Talk about something he can connect to the 70s-era Minnesota Vikings, and you'll get a substantial retelling of many players' respective athletic accomplishments. But mention something about institutional racism or patriarchal power structures and he'll pretty much sigh, pat you on the shoulder, and walk out of the room. If such an exchange occurs during your undergraduate years, he may nail a pretty sweet one-liner concerning the interplay of tuition dollars and positive intellectual gains, with a potential follow-up about alcohol consumption to really take the wind outta your sails.

I think my dad responds like this partly because I blew out his arguing reserves sometime around Spring 1994 the way you knock out the engine gaskets on a 1991 Honda Civic by driving it cross country a half dozen times. But he also responds this way because concepts like that are too nebulous, too easily abused, too readily thrown around by well-intentioned people who have difficulty translating the things they experience or see as self-evident into that which can be demonstrably proved. Yet, racism, prejudice, and bias inhere our systems, and continue to do so in a manner that suggests the systems are either extraordinarily broken, or are in fact designed to keep people broken.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about one clear example of inherent bias toward the fastest growing cross-section of students in California.

I teach English Language Learners (ELLs) . Within a generation or two, there will only be like, three teachers hiding out in the western Sierras for whom that statement will not be true. Every year, ELLs are assessed in the categories of listening/speaking, reading, and writing using the California English Language Development Test (CELDT), and accordingly afforded a ranking from 1 (beginning) to 5 (advanced). Students with a CELDT score are eligible for Structured English Immersion courses, which are designed, in theory, to simultaneously teach content and ELD standards. The CELDT, however, is a test that cannot be passed. There is no mechanism within the exam itself that allows students to demonstrate a sufficient mastery of the English language to be deemed fluent. Instead, there is a reclassification process, sometimes called redesignation. The state sets forth guidelines, but it is up to the individual districts to fill in various specifics. On a broad scale, reclassification requires students to demonstrate not only oral/aural fluency, but formal academic achievement as well, mostly in the form of passing certain benchmarks on the California Standards Test (CST).

Reclassification matters because students who are not reclassified are required to be taught the English language primarily, and academic skills secondarily. Teachers are accountable to both grade level standards and the English Language Development standards. ELLs who have not been reclassified are enrolled in Structured English Immersion (SEI) classes. These classes are not recognized by UC and CSU schools as acceptable college preparatory courses. The UC schools allow a student to take a single year of SEI English. Any subsequent credits will be invalidated and make the student ineligible. Other California colleges and universities do not even allow that single year.

English Language Learners in California can thereby be granted either 1) appropriate instructional environments or 2) the opportunity to maintain college eligibility. But not both.

The academic requirements in reclassification represent a further bias. By requiring students to achieve a near-proficient score on the CST exams, or worse, on the state writing exam, we require mastery of subjects and topics that have nothing to do with whether a kid is fluent in the English language. What does differentiating between internal and external conflict have to do with English fluency? Why is the identification of a literary device a requirement for demonstrating Enlish fluency? Likewise, indirect characterization, appropriate semi-colon usage, or the selection of the best supporting detail -- these are academic skills, not measures of language ability.

And yes, of course students who lack fluency in English will not be able to do those things, but can a student possess English fluency and still lack academic skills? Of course. Are there EOs who cannot write a response to literature, analyze characterization, or discuss how character speech affects the tone of a piece? Of course. Yet, the EO student who lacks academic skills is not hit with systemic sanctions with regard to college eligibility; the ELL is.

Here, the EO is China, granted favored nation status; the ELL is Cuba, quarantined past any reasonable purpose.

It gets even worse when you consider that the majority of ELLs in SEI environments are denied access to grade-level standards, either deliberately or because an adopted curriculum (um, High Point?) fails to provide access. Look at the trap: you're an ELL so you get to be in this SEI class, but you can only get out of this SEI class by reaching a performance level the SEI class does not prepare you for, and when you cannot reach that level you will need to continue in the SEI class until you test high enough to exit, but at no point will you be mandated to receive the instruction necessary to reach that achievement level. Awesome. Terrific.

Fixing it
The CELDT should be more difficult, (as it will soon become) and reclassification less difficult. Performance on the CELDT, rather than CST exams, should be the driving force behind reclassification. The former measure a student's proficiency with the language, while the latter are purely academic measurements, more reflective of teacher quality than a student's ability to use language and perform in English only classroom settings -- and man, it's not like out of the realm of possibility that predominantly poor ELL kids have had a conveyor belt of worthless teachers.

The biggest villain is the damn writing test, which many Districts also require students to master prior to reclassification. My own District, in its infinite near-sightedness has added this requirement to the state guidelines, and year after year, it is the biggest obstacle to reclassifying otherwise accomplished students. And it's ridiculous. Requiring kids to write with the ease and fluency of a native speaker before they can be considered ready to sit in the same classes as native speakers is absurd. One need only look at the abysmal performance of all kids on these the Star Writing exam, or give various edu-blogs a close read to see that the ability to write compellingly, clearly, and forcefully is not a skill naturally granted to anyone with the ability to function in their primary language.

Does it matter?
I know the bias exists: low-performing ELL kids have the burden of being low-performing, but they also suffer from losing college eligibility when schools take the appropriate steps in scheduling them into classes providing the needed instruction. Still, I wonder if it matters. If you cannot hit the level of performance required to be reclassified, just graduating is called into question, never mind college matriculation. How many low-performing ELLs make the leap and gain the skills necessary to succeed in college? How many EOs do for that matter? How many kids are really being held back?

I mean, really, is it the non-eligible sanctions holding kids back, or is it the low achievement? To paraphrase a famous T-shirt slogan, how much are we blaming the gun for the murder and absolving the person who fired it?

Or complicate it further: Is the system biased against low-performing EOs? ELLs at least have a mandate to receive instructional modifications to meet their learning needs; outside the IEP process low-performing EOs have no such claim on additional support. Are they the ones actually getting sanctioned?

And so...
We come back full circle to the little ditty perched atop this blog. If we close the educator achievement gap, if we taught better and more fully, if we made sure kids had the foundational skills necessary for all future achievement, we could stop talking about college elligibility, CAHSEE pass rates, and all the rest.


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