Language proficiency should be the first goal

I am compelled to comment on the “failing” schools in the Buffalo Public Schools. It is time for some common sense.

A majority of the students at Lafayette are non-English-speakers. They are not necessarily of lower intelligence; in fact, some of them are probably very bright, but they lack the language skills to succeed. They also come from countries with very diverse cultures. For some of them, this is their first experience with formal schooling of any kind. Upon admission, they are placed in classes appropriate to age and grade level – not language proficiency.

At these grade levels, students are required to pass New York State standardized tests even though they have difficulty understanding the teacher or reading the test materials. Perhaps State Education Commissioner John B. King and Superintendent Pamela C. Brown should be transported into a similar situation: in a foreign country, unable to understand the language – let alone read or write it – and required to pass exams designed to challenge native speakers. How well would they perform?

Wouldn’t it be more sensible to suspend testing and educate instead? Assign these students to a language academy and divide the classes by language skills, not grade levels. Then, for as long as necessary, provide instruction in reading, writing, speaking and understanding English. At the same time, they could become more familiar with American culture. While this might delay graduation, it would lead to happy, productive lives, not to frustration and failure. Isn’t an eventual diploma better than none?

Don’t blame the students or the teachers. Blame the myopic state Department of Education, its adoration of standardized testing and its threat to withhold money if Buffalo doesn’t comply. Do we want arbitrary numbers, or do we want genuinely educated young people? It’s just common sense.

Barbara Bedient