June 23, 2008

Language is Hurdle for State Diploma Test

By Jennifer Smith Richards, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

Jun. 22--Mohamed Moallin stands at the chalkboard and, in a thick accent, says words such as phenotypes and heterozygous to a roomful of students who are still learning to speak English.

Down the hall at the Welcome Center at Mifflin International Middle School, a bilingual assistant is coaching the high-school students on vowel sounds. Another assistant is helping a group practice writing a letter.

It is the last day of cramming for a test that, if history holds, many students won't pass. Most Ohio high-school students, who start taking the Ohio Graduation Test in 10th grade, must pass all five sections -- math, reading, science, social studies and writing -- to earn a diploma.

"The test winds up being a reading test. It's about how well you can read and understand," said Ken Woodard, who heads the Columbus City Schools' English as a Second Language programs.

Eight percent of Columbus students, including the 190 attending the two-week Ohio Graduation Test tutoring session that ended Friday, are classified as "limited English proficient." That means they receive special instruction to learn English.

The summer administration of the graduation exam starts for them today, and for some seniors, it's the only thing standing in the way of a diploma.

Twenty-eight percent of Columbus' ESL students passed the test's science section last year. Fewer than half passed social studies and math.

Nearly 57 percent of all other city students, mostly native English speakers, passed the science section, which is widely thought to be the most difficult.

The ESL students do get more time to take the exam and are permitted to use a dictionary.

"The language is so specific; it doesn't matter where you're from. If you don't know it, you don't know it," said Deb Shepherd, who teaches ESL at Northland High School and helps run the summer program. "There are words in there that I hadn't heard until we started tutoring."

That's why Moallin, a science teacher, stopped every so often as he taught how to use recessive and dominant genes to determine genetic probabilities: "Do you understand?"

Some of the students are new immigrants, and some had little or no schooling before coming to Columbus.

But not all of Ohio's English-language learners are immigrants. About 11,000 Ohio students were born in another country, but about 29,000 are enrolled in English as a Second Language classes. That implies that as many as two-thirds of the state's ESL students were born in the U.S.

"Even the ones that have just recently come to the country know exactly how important it is," Shepherd said of the test.

That's why many of the students who received tutoring chose to get up early, pack their own snacks and find a way to school. (Many take COTA; there are no school buses for them.)

Osaah Asamoah, who is 15, has passed all sections but reading. She is from Ghana.

"Sometimes I don't understand the clues they give" in the text, Asamoah said. But she said she knows she'll pass this time.

If she doesn't, her chances of passing the next time she tries are greater. State data show that, by their third year of taking the test, the nonnative speakers' scores are pretty close to other students', except in social studies and science.

"Their desire is stronger than their frustration," Shepherd said.

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