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April 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 7

High School and Beyond / ELLs: What's the Endgame?

For many English language learners, the endgame isn't just passing state exams—it's attending and graduating from college.

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"Let go of the past and go for the future. Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you imagined.<ATTRIB>Henry David Thoreau</ATTRIB>
Jose, now a teacher, vividly recalls one day early in his senior year when he stopped by the high school guidance office, along with fellow senior Mark. The secretary, reaching around him, handed Mark the latest SAT bulletin, with a reminder that the registration deadline was the following week. Jose had arrived from Mexico six years earlier speaking little English, but he had put in late hours studying, achieving As and Bs and successfully passing all the state exams. "I felt like a ghost," he remembers. "She looked right through me."
With little information about college admissions processes, scholarship potential, or SATs, Jose did what others in his community did: He enrolled in the local community college, working his way through the gatekeeper placement exams, starting off in "basic" (that is, remedial) English, and taking a course or two each semester, hoping to find the money to enroll full time.
The Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study(Radford, Berkner, Wheeless, &amp; Shepherd, 2010), which explored rates of persistence and attrition for a representative sample of U.S. undergraduates who began postsecondary education in 2003, found that only 49 percent had achieved postsecondary closure in six years (a certificate, associate's degree, or bachelor's degree). At the six-year mark, 15 percent remained enrolled either part time or full time, and more than one-third—35 percent—exited the postsecondary world without a certificate or degree of any kind.
For students like Jose who begin their education career in a two-year institution, the statistics are even more negative; approximately 45 percent of students exit without a certificate or degree. Race and ethnicity play a further role—Hispanic students fare worse than their white counterparts. For Jose, whose parents had dreamed of a bright future for their son, the dream was an unlikely scenario.

Broadening Definitions of School Success

What is the endgame for English language learners (ELLs)? What do we want them to achieve—and, more important, whose game is it, ours or theirs? In recent years, the endgame has been defined by federal policy and local school districts as meeting achievement targets and evading the stigma of poor scores on state assessments. Districts with large numbers of linguistically diverse students are frequently blamed for the achievement (or lack thereof) of English language learners who fail to move beyond basic levels of literacy and math.
But adolescent ELLs do not form a neat and tidy cohort. Rather, the cohort is marked more by its differences than its similarities. Some learners are new immigrants; others are long-term English language learners who are challenged by academic literacy. The best programs, in both cases, respond to life circumstances, academic background and needs, and student and family goals (Rance-Roney, 2009).
With new federal initiatives devoted to making K–12 students college and career ready, the endgame is not just passing the mandated tests. To successfully compete with newly emerging education powerhouses in Europe and Asia, the United States must make good on its promise of equal access to education and high-quality instruction for all.

Transitioning to College

For Jose, his family, and other English language learners, the endgame is not passing state exams—it's attending and graduating from college. Community colleges recognize the challenge this dream presents for low-income students and students of color. In 2004, a consortium of community colleges decided to explore innovations that held the most promise for student retention and achievement, forming an organization called Achieving the Dream (www.achievingthedream.org). The network now includes 130 community colleges. One of its key goals is fostering alignment between K–12 education and postsecondary institutions, creating K–16 cohesion.
School districts play an equally significant role in supporting secondary to postsecondary transitions for students who have traditionally had low rates of college completion. Unfortunately, the cost to districts of supporting secondary ELLs through the transition doesn't come cheaply. On the other hand, not supplying them with college-ready skills comes at an even greater cost to the United States and its taxpayers. When college freshmen are not prepared with the academic skills they need to learn the core curriculum, remediation to increase writing, reading, and math skills creates a fiscal and emotional drain, both on tax-supported institutions and on the new college students themselves. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education (2006), "taxpayers provide about a billion dollars a year to cover the direct and indirect instructional costs of remedial courses, through the subsidies which community colleges receive from state and local governments."
For many ELLs entering college, the cost is also high. It means added semesters of schooling and tuition before entering a degree program, a greater likelihood of dropping out before degree completion, and a sense of anger and frustration that even though these youth have earned a high school diploma, college faculty deem many of them not worthy to enter "real" college courses.
There is ample finger-pointing in the blame game. School districts with large populations of English language learners who struggle to meet state assessment targets are generally reluctant to allocate resources for postsecondary transition efforts. Savvy district administrators wanting to make adequate yearly progress typically focus on preparing the "bubble ELLs," those with the highest potential for meeting state standards. These administrators are unlikely to spend precious resources on preparing the same students for successful college work.
But what about the endgame of Jose and his parents, who see little promise in a passing score on a state test but have their eye on the bigger prize—a college education?

What We Can Do

Schools can take several steps to support the transition of English language learners to postsecondary success.

Step 1: Create formal transition plans.

For learners with special needs, the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires early transition planning and bridging secondary schools and postsecondary goals. Teachers, specialists, and family members must collaborate in the best interests of the student. Replicating this transition process and team approach would benefit English language learners.
If a team of education specialists had looked at Jose's rapid progress in English, his commitment to hard work, and his past levels of achievement in Mexican schools, they would have recognized his potential to transition into a four-year college. If that team had met when Jose was 14—a requirement for students in special education—Jose may well have been challenged with a more rigorous course schedule and received English language instruction aligned with his goal of attending college.
Engaging family members in the planning process and acknowledging their dreams for their children form the basis of a partnership that will assist the family in preparing for the difficult process of college admission. Issues of appropriate college choice, application procedures and deadlines, financial aid eligibility and forms, and college readiness are clearly specific to the U.S. context. Even the most highly educated parents from other cultures will require information and assistance in helping their child transition to postsecondary education.
Many parents who are from the first generation in the United States only receive information from their own cultural community— and that information may be limited by those community members' past experiences. It is essential that school personnel guide the family in postsecondary planning.

Step 2: Provide differentiated guidance.

In many guidance offices, differentiated college counseling is an afterthought. At the very least, guidance counselors who work with English language learners should receive advanced training in understanding the complex process of postsecondary transitions.
For example, if English language learners take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) in addition to the SATs, it will help them demonstrate their proficiency in English as well as clarify what academic English they need to acquire. College support services, such as free language tutoring, language labs, freshman composition courses designed for English language learners, and credit for English as a second language coursework, may increase the success potential of a student still acquiring academic English proficiency. Guidance personnel should guide students to postsecondary institutions that offer these ELL-friendly services; many of these institutions are among the more competitive colleges and universities.
Each year, college admissions officers at many private institutions, especially those outside major metropolitan areas, actively recruit high-achieving students who will diversify their incoming class. Scholarships—sometimes full scholarships— often go unredeemed. These scholarships can make a private college education less expensive than attendance at a state college, where little financial support may be available. Guidance counselors need to make this information available to students.

Step 3: Focus on grammar and academic English.

Comprehensive English language development for ELLs in secondary schools typically requires the support of both content-area teachers and either the English as a second language or English language development teacher. Although the distribution of responsibility can mean that all teachers assist the learner in English development, it can also mean that no one teacher shoulders the responsibility for the student's language growth. In teachers' minds, it's often sufficient that the student uses English well enough to show proficiency in content on a state assessment.
However, when the student appears for placement testing at the local college, those same skills may no longer be adequate. College faculty report that English language learners frequently make grammatical mistakes and use grammatical conventions inconsistently. They often appear unable to break free of the restrictive five-paragraph essay. They face challenges when evaluating multiple sources and reaching synthetic conclusions. They typically lack the vocabulary to clearly and accurately express their ideas. They also routinely fail the gatekeeper writing exam meant to funnel only the most proficient students through the narrow tunnel directly to "regular" freshman composition.
Unlike high school, college composition demands sophisticated expression that includes the use of advanced grammatical structures (such as perfect tenses and hypothetical and conditional forms) and academic stems that signal mastery of academic discourse (such as, "It can be noted that…," "As a consequence of .…," and so on). Therefore, a significant part of the achievement game for college-bound English language learners is employing highly trained English as a second language specialists who have extensive knowledge of linguistics and can teach advanced ELLs academic discourse.

Step 4: Provide extended time to learn.

Adolescent English language learners have double the work of native English speakers (Short &amp; Fitzsimmons, 2007). Native speakers are challenged by content alone, whereas ELLs must also acquire the academic language needed to understand the content. Secondary schools should explore options in extending learning time for English language learners, such as implementing an extended school day, summer programs, or a bridge year after senior year, to ready students for postsecondary demands.
Extended learning could also be situated in cooperative programs between high schools and local community or four-year colleges. For example, does your community college offer credit or noncredit English as a second language courses tailored to college demands, with opportunities for high school students to register? Would the college agree to offer an English class at your high school? Would college officials agree to administer the college placement exam to juniors in your high school so teachers could gauge what students need to accomplish before graduation?

Step 5: Partner with postsecondary institutions.

Federal efforts aimed at preparing college- and career-ready secondary students have centered on state assessments, teacher preparation, curricular reform, and developing K–12 standards. However, there exists one glaring omission: structures that bridge secondary and postsecondary education, especially for future college students least likely to succeed. Currently, there's little incentive for high schools and colleges to communicate.
To respond to college-ready goals, high schools and regional public and private colleges should meet jointly and regularly to discuss outcomes, share assessment data, and collaborate in the formation of a K–16 curriculum framework that creates a seamless transition for all learners. English language learners clearly benefit when their high school teachers see the endgame and when they understand the linguistic demands of college courses and pace student learning to meet those demands throughout the four years of high school.
Early college is one promising model in which secondary students can take college courses while attending high school; these programs target underrepresented and first-generation college students as well as English language learners. However, only a small number of programs exist because of the time and money required for feasibility studies, expert consultation, community involvement, and curricular planning. Although the model is not broadly used, it has the potential to get educators talking across the fence.

The Endgame for Jose

Jose succeeded in spite of the odds, completing his associate's degree, attending a state university as an older student, and pursuing a master's degree in education. The experience of invisibility in his high school led him to the teaching profession and a commitment to help students view a future full of possibilities.
But wouldn't it have been better from the start if his high school had recognized and supported his potential for achievement? Jose won his endgame, but at the cost of wasted time, additional tuition, and a diminished sense of self-worth. With increasing numbers of English language learners entering high schools, educators can take concrete steps to ensure a more seamless transition to postsecondary education for students like Jose.

Alliance for Excellent Education. (2006).Paying double: Inadequate high schools and community college remediation. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved fromwww.all4ed.org/files/archive/publications/remediation.pdf

Radford, A. W., Berkner, L., Wheeless, S. C., &amp; Shepherd, B. (2010). Persistence and attainment of 2003–04 beginning postsecondary students: After six years (NCES 2011-151). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2011151

Rance-Roney, J. (2009). Best practices for adolescent ELLs. Educational Leadership,66(7), 32–37.

Short, D. J., &amp; Fitzsimmons, S. (2007).Double the work: Challenges and solutions to acquiring language and academic literacy for adolescent English language learners—A report to the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

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