Schools offer course credits for languages spoken at home

Everything from Arabic to Wolof can be tested, and levels the field for students learning English.

EVERETT — It seemed a moment of reckoning.

The results were in and Mubina Sabir had been summoned to visit with Everett High School’s English Language success coordinator.

Sabir was nervous as she headed over to visit with Briana Smith.

The tests, both written and oral, had lasted a couple of hours, but Sabir knew she could earn up to four years of high school world language credit. She remembered some of the spelling and grammatical errors she was sure she had made.

Her anxiety melted away with Smith’s smile.

“Guess what?” she remembers Smith saying. “You got a four.”

In other words, she aced the tests.

Sabir didn’t take the exam in the foreign language classes offered at Everett High. She was tested in Turkish. Although she has never set foot in Turkey, it was the language she learned in her native Azerbaijan. Her family speaks a combination of Azeri, Turkmani, Arabic and Persian at home, where she and her siblings help their parents learn English.

The sophomore is one of hundreds of students around Snohomish County and thousands across the state who are earning world language credits based on the first language they learned. They have done well enough on the Washington State Language Competency Tests to receive between one and four high school credits.

The Everett School District began providing the tests twice a year during the school day in the 2015-16 school year. It charges students $10 per test, regardless of the language. However, testing fees can range from $20 to $255, with uncommon languages being more expensive. The district picks up the tab for the difference.

A few of the more obscure languages Everett students were tested in included Chuukese from the Caroline Islands of Micronesia; Kizigua, which is a Bantu language of Tanzania and Somalia; and Mandinka, which is spoken in Senegal, the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau in Africa. Over the past two years, Everett has had 295 students test in Spanish, 106 in Russian, 58 in Vietnamese and 41 in Arabic.

“Sometimes we have to contract with a company to create an assessment,” said Leanna Albrecht, a school district spokeswoman.

Last year, 357 students took the exams across the district. The district has 174 students registered for its next exam window in November.

Jose Marroquin Ruiz plans to be one of them. The junior moved with his family from Mexico to California when he was 3. He was enrolled in English Language Learning classes in elementary school. Spanish has been spoken in his home since childhood. Nevertheless, he took third-year Spanish as a freshman.

His parents were pleased because the daily instruction helped him become more fluent. He has kept it up with increasingly rigorous classes, including a college-level Advanced Placement Spanish literature course this year. Having read excerpts of Don Quixote in Spanish, Marroquin Ruiz is not worried about the world language competency test he’ll take in a few weeks.

Last year, 238 middle and high school students in the Mukilteo School District earned high school credits based on the world language competency exams.

In all, they spoke 21 languages: American Sign Language, Amharic, Arabic, Cantonese, French, German, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Korean, Mandarin, Norwegian, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai, Ukrainian, Vietnamese and Wolof.

Ninety-nine students were from Mariner. Ninety-one others were eighth-graders who were able to start their freshmen year with high school credits on their transcript.

The Mukilteo district pays the fee for its students to take the exams, which for the most part come in two formats. One is known as the STAMP test, which is short for Standards-based Measurement of Proficiency. It’s an online exam that tests reading, writing, listening and speaking skills, but requires knowledge of English.

The other is known as the ALTA and it includes a one-hour written exam and up to a half hour phone conversation. The company offers exams in more than 80 languages, from Albanian to Yoruba.

“This is too good of an opportunity to pass up for our kids,” said Pete Bylsma, Mukilteo schools’ director of assessment and program evaluation. “They have an uphill battle learning our education system. If they can get three or four credits, that’s great.”

Nearly 20 percent of Mukilteo students are learning English as a second language and many of those are from low-income homes.

Mike Moore, an assistant principal at Mariner High School, said providing the world language exams can even out the playing field for some students, particularly those new to the country who are taking ELL classes.

“A lot of our ELL kids don’t have room in their schedules to take a foreign language class,” he said.

Increasing numbers of students are taking the exams statewide. The timing could prove helpful with tougher graduation requirements on the horizon. The state Board of Education has increased to 24 the number of credits students will need to graduate, beginning with the Class of 2019.

“If they get four credits, it opens up their schedule and it gives them more wiggle room if they don’t pass a particular class,” Bylsma said.

The Edmonds School District had more than 600 students tested in 52 languages from 2014 to 2017. During the 2015-16 school year, nearly 70 percent of the students taking the exams qualified for a free or reduced-priced lunch based on family income. Some of the students began taking exams as early as the seventh grade.

These days, Sarah Schumacher is an assistant principal at Meadowdale Middle School. Before that, she was manager of secondary education for the Edmonds district. In that capacity, she witnessed a steady stream of students take the exams, more than the district initially expected.

She said early concerns that the exams would hurt world language classes in the high schools didn’t become the issue some worried it might.

Data also showed middle school students did as well as their high school counterparts, Schumacher said.

Behind the numbers are stories of individual students. Schumacher at one point got to call the principal and counselor at Scriber Lake, an alternative high school, to let them break the news to a student that she’d received three credits from a world language competency exam. That gave her enough credits to graduate with her peers.

Students who have done well enough on the exams also have been recognized at school board meetings. Some earn what the state calls a “seal of biliteracy” and have been given honor cords to wear at graduation.

“The kids were just over the moon,” Schumacher said. “For some, it was the only honor they received and they were honored for something they inherited from their family.”

Some districts are further ahead than others in offering the exams.

Lake Stevens plans to make a push beginning this year. Last year, two students took a Japanese exam.

Back at Everett High School, Shipei Liang is thankful she had a chance to take the world language competency test in Mandarin, which is spoken in China and Taiwan. The junior moved to Everett while in high school.

A year ago, she was in an ELL class, but today she divides her time between Everett Community College and a class-load at the high school that includes college-level calculus and biology.

She was thankful the day she learned she could earn credits in a language she knows so well.

“I am so happy,” she said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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