Voices Vol 41 No 4

SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS: Higher Education

Placed in ESL... Again

By Gladys Vega Scott

A nother academic year has begun, and with this beginning, higher education ESL administrators face multiple complex issues, such as scheduling and staffing, to get their programs off to a good start. Many administrators would say that student placement is one of the most challenging aspects of directing or coordinating an ESL program. Deciding whether incoming freshmen who are long-term U.S. residents are ready for the first year composition course is much more challenging than it appears.

The purpose of placement testing is to ensure that students have the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in their academic career. For ESL students to be successful in college courses, it is critical that their oral and written communication skills in English are comparable to English-proficient peers; in other words, their English language proficiency needs to be at the reaching level on the WIDA scale (http://www.wida.us/standards/eld.aspx). However, not all ESL high school graduates have this level of proficiency when they take the placement test in college. The NJ Department of Education recommends “[f]or students in grades K through 12, an ACCESS for ELLs proficiency level of 4.5 or higher…for exiting a program” (http://www.state.nj.us/education/bilingual/ells/). A student who receives a 4.5 score is in between the expanding and bridging levels; which can indicate skills much lower than those at the reaching level.

Students who are not at the reaching level of proficiency are very unlikely to be placed in first year composition courses. In general, they are placed either in advanced ESL writing courses or basic skills classes. Such placement can be perceived as a less than friendly welcome to incoming freshmen who, having been exited from ESL programs at some point during their K-12 years, are confident in their language skills. When they learn about their placement, these students become confused and disappointed. Up to this juncture, most of them have their high school experience as their only point of reference regarding what is expected of students academically, and they cannot fathom how intense college classes can be. Therefore, they find it unfair and incomprehensible that they are asked to take another ESL course instead of College Composition I.

Understandably, the majority of the students questions the results of the tests and demands an explanation for their placement, which might delay their graduation one or two semesters. Many of the students also reject the idea of being back in an ESL class due to the stigma they have seen associated with bilingual/ESL programs in which they took part in the past. Simply put, these students feel disenchanted and frustrated. Aware of the devastating effects on the morale of student, ESL administrators strive to make sure that all students are evaluated accurately using valid, fair, and reliable assessments. Furthermore, they devote a great deal of time to answering questions and concerns raised by incoming freshmen so that these new students feel respected and supported at all times.

The issue of articulation between high schools and institutions of higher education has been of concern for quite some time. Discussions among ESL educators have started to shed some light into possible ways to ease the transition of ESL high school students into college. The joint session of the Supervisors SIG and the Higher Education SIG in the Spring Conference, for instance, provided a fruitful forum to exchange ideas and share insights. Let’s continue the conversation and collaborate on innovative ways to help our students.

Gladys Vega Scott is the Higher Education SIG Representative. She directs and teaches in the Academic ESL Program at William Paterson University. She may be reached at scottg@wpunj.edu.