Students Learn Differently. So Why Test Them All the Same?

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Arthur Goldstein

We teachers have been hearing for years about “differentiated instruction.” It makes sense to treat individuals differently, and to adapt communication toward what works for them. Some kids you can joke with, and some you cannot. Some need more explanation, while others need little or none. If you consider students as individuals (and especially if you have a reasonable class size), you can better meet their needs.

Considering that, it’s remarkable that the impending Core Curriculum fails to differentiate between native-born American students and English language learners. The fact is, it takes time to learn a language, and while my kids are doing that, they may indeed miss reading Ethan Frome.

Is that really the end of the world?

Before Common Core, our standard was the ever-evolving New York State English Regents exam. Anyone who doesn’t pass the test doesn’t graduate, period. So when my supervisor asks me to train kids to pass it, I do.

The last time I taught it, the Regents exam entailed various multiple choice questions and four essays. I trained kids to write tightly structured, highly formulaic four-paragraph essays (in a style I would never use).

Nonetheless, many of them passed. Kids told one another, “You should take that class. It’s awful, but you’ll pass the exam.”

Regrettably, though the kids worked very hard, writing almost until their hands fell off, the only skill they acquired was passing the English Regents.

Because the exam placed more emphasis on communication than structure, I did not stress structure. I had classes of up to 34, and had to read and comment on everything every kid wrote, so time was limited.

Still, I knew that when my kids went to college, they would have to take writing tests -- tests which would almost inevitably label them as E.S.L. students, and place them in remedial classes.

I’ve taught those very classes at Nassau Community College. Students pay for six credit hours and receive zero credits. It seems like a very costly way to learn (particularly since I would happily offer high school kids identical preparation for free). But when your student came from Korea five days ago and needs to graduate in less than a year, you make that kid pass the test.

Still, passing does not constitute mastery. It takes years to learn a language, and that time frame varies wildly by individual.

A kid who’s happy here will embrace the language and master it rapidly, while one who has been dragged kicking and screaming may fold his arms and refuse to learn a thing.

Some kids have been trained all their lives to be quiet in the classroom, and will not speak above a whisper -- not the best trait in a language learner.

I’m prepared to deal with all these kids, and ready and willing to do whatever necessary to help them. But if I’m compelled to teach them Shakespeare before they’re ready for SpongeBob, I’m not meeting their needs.

There’s no doubt my students will be more college-ready with a strong background in English structure and usage, something relatively automatic for native speakers. In fact, the language skills my kids have in their first languages will almost inevitably transfer into English.

But depriving them of the time and instruction they need is not, by any means, putting “Children First.” Children are not widgets, and not only teachers, but also educational leaders and test designers, need to differentiate.

Of course my kids can be assessed. But expecting the same thing from them and kids who have been speaking English all their lives is ludicrous.

Simply put, there is no true differentiation until and unless assessments are differentiated as well. If anyone up there in Albany really wants to know what English language learners need, ask me anytime.