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Alternate method to Regents exams helps English language learners

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Schools where students present portfolio work instead of take state-wide Regents exams help their immigrant students learn English.

On the top floor of a four-story high school in the Bronx, Maria Pascual, a 17-year-old senior, ran her hands nervously down her white suit jacket as if trying to keep it pressed. In one hand she held a small stack of index cards. Pascual exhaled deeply and then greeted four adults who sat at a long table in front of her. She spoke in English, a language foreign to her just two years ago.

“I’m always so nervous,” Pascual said with a Dominican accent as she pulled up her Powerpoint presentation on a classroom computer on this January afternoon. Despite her nervousness, Pascual said she would rather give a public presentation than cram for a high-stakes Regents test. “Speaking in front of people is how we improve our English,” said Pascual, whose family emigrated from the Dominican Republic two years ago. “When we take the test, we just try to memorize.”

This is the first year since International Community High School opened in 2006 that students can earn their diplomas by presenting research projects instead of taking the state-wide high school exit exams. The school is part of a consortium of 28 in New York State that are against high-stakes testing and received permission from the state to grant students their diplomas partially based on the presentations (rather than the tests). The approach is known as portfolio assessment.

Increasingly, teachers and experts believe the approach might be most beneficial for students who haven’t completely mastered English, known as English language learners, like Pascual.  Many English language learners have long struggled on standardized tests that cover English, math, history and science. The portfolio approach requires students to prepare 20-minute presentations for each class. Advocates of this approach say it takes away some of the pressure of testing, yet forces students to engage with the language even more deeply.

“Performance assessment helps all students, and English language learners the most, because they have an opportunity to really use the language,” said Ann Cook, the co-director of Urban Academy in Manhattan, who created the consortium in 1998 as a way to curb high-stakes testing. Though she was not focused on English language learners initially, they have become a key part of the consortium’s work. Five of the consortium schools serve recently arrived immigrants. At International Community High School, 93 percent of students qualify as English language learners.

New, if not entirely unbiased, research backs her up. A study released last year by the New York Performance Standards Consortium found that consortium students out-performed students in traditional public schools on metrics like graduation rates and college performance. English language learners performed especially well: Seventy percent from consortium schools graduated, compared with 40 percent citywide.

Pascual began preparing for her 20-minute pre-calculus presentation last October. In an effort to improve her English, she has spent a lot of time with classmates from Asia or Africa, instead of those from Spanish-speaking countries, so she won’t be tempted to slip into Spanish. The portfolio presentations have been good for her, she said, because they force her to understand not only what words mean but how to pronounce them and use them in context as well. 

There’s been a lot of pushback against high-stakes testing in middle-income communities in recent months. A New York Times article published in March quoted several families in the New Jersey community of Bloomfield, who described why they decided to “opt out” of high-stakes testing. Last year, 69,000 students in New York State opted out of the state’s Common Core-aligned math test, according to the article. This so called opt-out movement helps create awareness in middle-income communities to the pressures of high stakes testing, Cook said. But most of the parents and students at International Community High School have recently arrived in the United States and work multiple jobs, said Berena Cabarcas, principal of International Community. “Opting-out” isn’t even on their radar.

Ari Uy, a math teacher at International Communities High School, emigrated from the Philippines in 1999 and understands his students’ struggles to learn English. Oral and visual presentations can be difficult for ninth graders, Uy said. But by presenting twice each year in each class, students improve dramatically by senior year.

Principal Berena Cabarcas had made portfolio-based assessment a focus of her administration at International Community High School.

Up until this school year, International Community High School had to do both portfolio work and prepare students for the Regents. It isn’t possible to do both well, said Cabarcas. But now that teachers and administrators can focus just on the presentations, she’s much more optimistic that the new approach will help students continue to excel, including English language learners like Pascual.

As the afternoon passed, Pascual talked about calculus concepts such as matrices with confidence. She paced the room, took questions and wrote equations on the board. For her second presentation, in government class, she argued in support of gay marriage, comparing gay rights to the Civil Rights Movement and the women’s movement. She quoted the U.S. Constitution, arguing that the rights delineated in the document pertain to all people, including gays. After addressing the panelists’ questions, Pascual left the room and panelists pulled out their so-called “grading rubrics” to deliberate on how she had done. 

Consortium schools use detailed rubrics to assess students’ presentations. Panelists grade students on a scale from one to five in areas like professionalism, accuracy, use of time and organization. A whole category is devoted to students’ ability to make connections. Cabarcas believes this section is the most important — and something entirely uncovered by the Regents.

The panel grading Pascual was comprised of two full-time teachers, a marketing professional and a substitute teacher. The adults deliberated over Pascual’s score for nearly 20 minutes, discussing her professionalism, her use of vocabulary, and her ability to answer questions directly and succinctly. A student retrieved Pascual from the hallway and when the panelists told her her score—an 87 out of 100, which converted to an “outstanding” — Pascual hid her big smile behind her hands. As long as she passed all of her classes, she would graduate in June. She was well on her way toward attending a CUNY school and studying criminal justice.

Not all students at International Community prefer the performance-based assessments. Shuaib Essaedi, a 17-year-old from Yemen, prefers the Regents exams over the presentations. He feels he learns more from preparing for the tests. 

“You can take your time,” the senior said. “You have to know a lot of information and you have to study a lot.”

But most of his classmates disagree. “Portfolio is better for students like us, immigrant students,” said Mohammad Algsi, also a senior from Yemen. He says the portfolio approach forces him to master more vocabulary.

Indeed, Pascual has found portfolio preparation to be just as challenging — but in a different way. “Last year I worked so hard to study for the Regents,” she said. “I thought I would be able to relax.” But she found quite the opposite to be true. To put together effective presentations she came in a few Saturdays a month and stayed after school for weeks. But she knows the skills she learned are useful, noting that few of her friends at other schools know how to do Powerpoint presentations.

The week after the portfolio presentations, the energy in the hallways was much more relaxed. Students switched from wearing skirts and suits to blue jeans and hooded sweatshirts. But because every student at International Community presents portfolios twice a year, it won’t be too long before the school again becomes a flurry of well-dressed teens, speaking accented English, flitting from room to room in nervous anticipation of their “high stakes” presentations.

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