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Louisiana’s English learners rarely graduate on time. These educators want to change the criteria

Something interesting happened during the pandemic at teacher Emma Merrill’s school: the graduation rate for English learners, or ELs, went through the roof.

Merrill, an EL teacher at G.W. Carver High School in New Orleans, had long struggled to get her students to pass Louisiana’s mandatory exit exams. During the 2018-19 school year, just 24% of her students were able to graduate, she said.

But when the state canceled end of year testing due to COVID-19, all of her students received their diplomas.

“It’s super clear in the numbers that 24% was due to the test, and it wasn’t due to kids not passing their classes and it wasn’t due to kids not attending school,” Merrill said. “It was because kids were unable to pass the LEAP exam.”

In a state that has some of the strictest graduation requirements in the country, Merrill and several other local educators are challenging Louisiana to rethink its standards and offer an alternate graduation pathway to recently arrived immigrants.

The state’s current tests are given in English, though ELs get extended time and can use a dictionary. But Merrill said that isn’t enough to level the playing field.

“These tests are written for kids who have been learning the English language their entire lives and growing their skills and reading and writing in English since they were in kindergarten,” she said.

The alternate pathway proposed by Merrill and others is called EXCELL, which stands for Expanded Criteria for English Learners in Louisiana. Rather than tie graduation to state exams, the criteria carves out exemptions for students who come to the United States in or after the sixth grade.

If a student fails to pass a mandatory state test, the proposed criteria allows them to still graduate as long as they complete a portfolio project that demonstrates mastery of the same concepts tested on the exam. They still need to pass their diploma courses, meet seat time requirements and prove English proficiency.

“It is a lot more work because it's a cumulative experience,” said Cheruba Chavez, an educational diagnostician with NOLA Public Schools who co-authored the criteria with Merrill. “This portfolio is more representative of a student's ability than a one-time, 3-hour test.”

While it may look to some as if they’re relaxing the graduation standards, Chavez and Merrill argue they’re actually doing the opposite. The state scores exams using five achievement levels: advanced, mastery, basic, approaching basic and unsatisfactory. Current graduation standards require students to score basic or higher. Under EXCELL, students would have to score mastery or higher on their portfolio project.

Their proposal also requires that students demonstrate that they’re on track to become English proficient on a separate exam.

Chavez said their standards, which are modeled after those adopted by other states, encourage schools to spend more time on English language acquisition rather than have students repeat science and history courses over and over again so they can pass a handful of state tests.

Louisiana had one of the lowest percentages of ELs in the country, until a large number of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras entered the U.S. and settled in the state in 2014 and 2015.

The number of students attending Louisiana public schools with limited English proficiency climbed from 15,500 in 2014 to 27,200 in 2021. English learners now account for 3.9% of the state’s public school students.

Jefferson Parish enrolls the highest percentage of ELs in the state at nearly 17%. The second highest percentage is in East Baton Rouge with 7.7%, followed by St. Bernard with 6.4%, and Orleans with 6.2%. The majority of the state’s ELs are fluent in Spanish, though Louisiana has a significant Vietnamese speaking population as well.

EXCELL was developed and is supported by a coalition of educators, community organizers and business leaders in Orleans and Jefferson. Orleans became the first parish to issue formal support for the proposal when its school board passed a resolution in support Thursday night, and Merrill said they’re in the process of pitching their new criteria to other districts across the state.

“This resolution is not about supporting mediocrity, but rather about expanding opportunities,” said board member J.C. Wagner Romero.

Romero was born and raised in New Orleans by a single immigrant mother from Nicaragua and has strong ties with the city’s Spanish speaking community.

He said the state’s current standards “literally force” hard-working students to drop out of school and called on the state Department of Education and school board to “listen and reflect and engage.”

“This resolution is not about supporting mediocrity, but rather about expanding opportunities."
J.C. Wagner Romero, Orleans Parish School Board Member

Merrill said the students she works with face considerable obstacles to graduating. Many come to the United States at 14 or 15 years old and speak little to no English.

One of Merrill’s former students, Denilson, came to the U.S. alone when he was 14-years-old and did not speak any English, she said. He attended school regularly and passed his classes, but couldn’t get a high enough score on the state’s history exam.

Denilson failed the exam for the third time in December 2019, Merrill said, and was preparing to take the exam again when the pandemic hit. The state waived testing requirements, and he was finally able to graduate with the class of 2020.

These students have to learn English quickly if they want to achieve the fluency needed to pass state exams and graduate on time, or before they age out of Louisiana’s public school system when they turn 21-years-old, Merrill said. The problem is that it can take students five to seven years to achieve academic English proficiency, according to research.

Romero and Merrill said years of low graduation rates have sent the message to EL students that graduating on time is almost impossible. Rather than stick it out and keep trying, some students give up completely.

“If we have kids who are not able to graduate this year because of a test that sends a signal to kids in ninth grade, 10th grade, 11th grade, ‘Oh shoot, I have to pass this test. I'm going to quit now,’” she said.

High school enrollment has declined since the pandemic, and Merrill said she’s worried the return of mandatory testing could lead more students to drop out.

While exit exams were required last year, students that failed were still allowed to graduate if they completed an additional 20 hours of coursework.

“We've had, like it or not, two pilot years without testing requirements because of COVID. This is a perfect time to revisit accountability,” Chavez said. “We want to hold our kids to high expectations, but do we want to hold their diploma as well?”

Merrill and Chavez said time is of the essence since they’re pushing for the new pathway to be put in place in time for the class of 2022. They’re worried the state won’t offer any testing exemptions this spring despite the fact that many students, especially ELs, are struggling to catch up due to the pandemic.

In order to change the graduation standards, they first need to get the state’s school board to back their proposal and agree to help shepherd it through the Louisiana Legislature, since extensive changes to state law and policy are likely needed.

At this point, it’s unclear how the request will be perceived by both state board members and lawmakers. What is known is that there’s a lot of ground that needs to be covered if they want the standard to change by the spring.

“I have 12 kids who are seniors this year who still need to pass tests and I do not want to see them not graduate because of the policies we have in place,” Merrill said. “It's imperative that this is passed as soon as possible.”

Copyright 2021 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio

Aubri Juhasz is a news assistant for NPR's All Things Considered.