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For Philly English learners, arranging standardized testing accommodations can be a challenge

The neurologists weren’t helping. Each appointment left Madeline Perez Vega less secure about her son Jose’s well-being than the last. When he eventually experienced a seizure so intense that his face turned purple and blue, she knew she had to find a solution somewhere else.

In 2012, Perez Vega moved her four children from Puerto Rico to Lee Street in Kensington seeking better medical treatment for her kids. Except for a temporary, four-month stay in Connecticut, Perez Vega and her children —  Jose, 18; Darlene, 17; Joseline, 15; and Luis Rivera Perez, 15; — had never lived in a predominantly English-speaking community.

“I liked it from first impressions when I arrived,” Perez Vega said. “But the first year here was a little difficult for [the children] and for me, too.”

Everyday communication, said Joseline Rivera Perez, was a major challenge.

The Rivera Perez children entered the Philadelphia School District as English language learners, or ELLs. Pennsylvania defines ELLs as students whose first language is not English and who do not proficiently speak, read, write or understand the English language. According to the Philadelphia School District’s citywide data profile, 12 percent of students in Philadelphia’s public and charter schools were ELLs during the 2018-2019 school year. 

As of 2016, Philadelphia students spoke 107 languages, and 52 percent of ELLs spoke Spanish. In the Kensington area, where according to the U.S. Census approximately 40 percent of residents are Hispanic or Latino and almost one-third of residents speak Spanish at home, the number of ELLs is higher than the citywide average. 

While ZIP codes 19122, 19125, 19133, and 19134 hovered just above the citywide average of ELL students at 13 percent, and with 19133 and 19134 around 15 percent, many area schools had a well-above-average percentage of ELLs: 

  • Isaac A. Sheppard (28%)
  • Lewis Elkin (25%)
  • Julia de Burgos (25%)
  • Potter-Thomas (24%)
  • Kensington Health Sciences Academy (21%)
  • Kensington High School (21%)
  • Philip H. Sheridan (18%)
  • Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts (17%) 
  • John Welsh School (16%)
  • William Hunter (13%) 

Language barriers and culture shock are among the many challenges English learners face at school, the Rivera Perez children said. But receiving accommodations for and taking the statewide standardized tests like the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and Keystone Exams is especially stressful, they said. 

“When I first started taking the exams, it was very frustrating,” said Joseline, a sophomore at Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School. “I had no idea what I was doing.”

While research has repeatedly shown that standardized tests create stress for students, for English learners, these tests create even more anxiety and stress, said Maura McInerney, the legal director of the Education Law Center in Philadelphia. Not only is arranging accommodations often a confusing process, but students often misunderstand how the tests will affect them. 

“I would get nervous because I thought, ‘If I fail, I will get held back,’” said Darlene Rivera Perez, a senior at Kensington CAPA.

Jenifer Felix, who works as an English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and Spanish teacher at Kensington Health Sciences Academy (KHSA), adjusts the blinds in her classroom at KHSA. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Jenifer Felix, who works as an English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher at Kensington Health Sciences Academy, said her students — especially those from other countries where similar exams determine whether or not they can graduate — take standardized tests very seriously. 

“We as teachers tell them, ‘Look — don’t worry. Consider it as a practice because you can take it again another year,’” Felix said. “But it’s hard to make that change in their head.” 

The tests are not meant to penalize students for their performance or affect their grade promotion, McInerney said. The purpose of standardized testing in Pennsylvania is to ensure that all students are meeting proficiency targets established by the state legislature, McInerney said. The tests are meant to help schools, school districts and the Pennsylvania Department of Education adapt curriculum and accommodations to meet the needs of their students. 

“So the School District of Philadelphia would say… ‘These children are not meeting proficiency [targets] and haven’t for a long time,’” McInerney said. “‘What is the plan we’re going to put into place in order to support these students?’”

For the state Department of Education to accurately gauge through test scores which students need what support, English learners are entitled to specific accommodations, McInerney said. English learners have numerous rights — mandated by state law — to ensure they have equal access to the school curriculum, she said. Not only are students entitled to accommodations for standardized tests, but they are also entitled to accommodations for in-class exams and access to ESOL support in their core classes. 

Standardized testing accommodations offered by the Pennsylvania Department of Education include word-to-word translation dictionaries and interpreters for the mathematics and science PSSAs and Keystone Exams, according to the Department of Education’s 2019 Accommodations Guidelines for English Learners. Interpreters are allowed to translate test instructions for all exams. The test content can be translated throughout the math and science tests, but not for literature or English language arts.

Determining which accommodations ELLs receive relies on a few measures, said Sherri Pierce-Jeffreys, who works as the standardized testing coordinator for Rhawnhurst Elementary. 

Each school receives a list of students who are eligible as English learners from the school district, Pierce-Jeffreys said. As the testing coordinator, she then collects information from the student’s ESOL instructors, other classroom teachers and parents to determine whether a student needs accommodations. Overall, the decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

While some of this process and the accommodations offered are straightforward, some feel that others are seemingly arbitrary and restrictive rather than supportive. For example, English learners who have been enrolled in schools in the United States for fewer than three years are entitled to side-by-side Spanish and English versions of the math and sciences PSSAs and Keystones.

“After three years, they’re kind of on their own,” said Pierce-Jeffreys, who also used to work as an ESOL teacher at Francis E. Willard Elementary.

According to an email from a spokesperson from the state Department of Education, the three-year limit exists because after “learning academic content in English for more than three years … it becomes ineffective, and even detrimental in some cases, after that period of time.” But schools are allowed to extend the three-year limit if they seek the state’s approval, which some schools do, they said. 

However, research has shown that on average it takes ELLs three to five years to reach oral proficiency in English, and for academic proficiency it can take four to seven years. And according to a recent report on native language standardized assessments, Pennsylvania is less accommodating than other states. For example, in Colorado, students can take all of their exams — including language arts — in Spanish for up to five years. New Mexico offers the same, but for three years, with the option to extend these accommodations for two additional years if needed. 

“A child could be in a program for three years but still be at a level one in reading, and then at a level three in speaking,” said McInerney. “It’s just that three years is it is not an adequate time period to know that absolutely every student would no longer need that accommodation.”

In addition to some of the challenges associated with the accommodations themselves, McInerney said another difficulty is that not every family knows they have the right to accommodations in the first place. This is especially common due to the language barrier between Spanish-speaking families and schools without proper support for parents. 

Perez Vega and her children said they don’t recall being involved in arranging for standardized testing accommodations. 

“I’m involved in their school, but it is really really hard to communicate, Perez Vega said. 

Madeline Perez Vega (second from left) poses with her children Jose (left), Darlene (center), and Joseline Rivera Perez at Norris Square Park on August 6, 2019. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

Iliana Acevedo, the Philadelphia School District’s only bilingual curriculum development assistant, said the district does offer free in-person services for meetings and parent-teacher conferences, but they have to be scheduled by the school. There’s also Language Access — offered through the Office of Family and Community Engagement (FACE) — available to district staff for translating district-wide and school-specific documents into eight different languages. Parents in need of Language Access services can fill out a service request card, which school staff can then use to schedule services on the parent’s behalf.

According to Acevedo, FACE also coordinates the placement of bilingual counselor assistants (BCA) in schools with a high number of English learners. BCAs provide translation services and make sure that school documents are sent home in families’ native languages. 

“If the school has a very high population of Spanish-speaking students or Mandarin-speaking students, the BCA is placed there every single day,” Acevedo said. 

Schools that have less need for a BCA may have a counselor available twice a week, so the school district can use that counselor in different schools supporting the different needs in the district, Acevedo said.

Parents must request all of these services through their child’s school or BCA, the school’s FACE liaison, or through the Language Access service request cards.

Despite all of their language learning challenges, the Rivera Perez children are beginning to feel a sense of relief when it comes to their day-to-day lives in an English-speaking community. However, they would like to see accommodations that are better suited to each student, especially as the Latinx population is projected to nearly double by 2060, according to U.S. Census projections.  

In the meantime, Jose advises students like him to keep trying.

“I would always think that, ‘I’m never gonna learn English,’” he said. “‘I’m never gonna be able to communicate with someone,’ and now I can talk to anyone in English.”

“Don’t give up,” he said. 

Editors: Jillian Bauer-Reese, Evan Easterling / Story Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator: Diana Cristancho