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DE increases student access to language proficiency tests


Holderline Lebreton, 19, is thankful she could take her State of Delaware language proficiency test in Haitian Creole. 

A senior at Seaford High School in the Seaford School District, Lebreton, like all Delaware students, must earn two credits in a world language other than English to graduate high school. As a native of Haiti, Lebreton is also an English language learner (ELL) – a student from a non-English-speaking home or background.


For Lebreton and other ELL students, having to take a beginner’s class in a native language, when available, can be cumbersome, especially when additional graduation requirements loom overhead.


Last year, recognizing the need to support ELL students more effectively, Seaford partnered with the Delaware Department of Education in a pilot program that offered ELL students the ability to take language proficiency tests in their native languages to earn world language credits.


Now more districts throughout Delaware will be able to offer their students this opportunity thanks to a recent grant provided by the state.


The Assessing Native Language Proficiency for English Language Learners Grant gives $45,000 to seven Delaware school districts to cover test costs for the 2016 – 2017 school year: Brandywine, Capital, Christina, Colonial, Milford, Red Clay and Seaford.


For Lebreton and other ELL students, having native language proficiency tests doesn’t just make school life easier. The tests can increase graduation rates among ELL students and provide equal access to more rigorous coursework.


“We are very excited about this opportunity. We have seen an influx of ELL students in our school district, and we are continually looking to improve our supports to this population,” said Bridget Amory, director of elementary education for the Milford School District. “This is one avenue where we can really help to support our students so that they can focus on other classes, even maybe the acquisition of a third or fourth language later on.”


Between 1997 and 2015, the number of ELLs in Delaware rose 369 percent. Currently, Delaware is home to more than 10,000 ELLs, 80 percent of whom are Latino students from 15 countries.


This year Dover High School in the Capital School District will use the Assessing Native Language grant to offer tests in eight languages, including Arabic, Tagalog and Urdu.


“Our students who are non-native English speakers already come to school with a skill that we want our native English speakers to have – they know a language other than English,” said Darren Guido, supervisor of instruction for the Capital School District. “It only makes sense that if they can demonstrate proficiency of their native language on an assessment, these students should be free to pursue other coursework, some of which will help them learn English at a more-rapid rate.”


ELL students are often required to learn English alongside their regular classes, but not having the time needed to focus on classes in another language sometimes leads to struggles with academic content, causing frustration, delays in graduation and leaving many ELLs dropping out of high school altogether.


Guido says the ability to demonstrate language proficiency through testing helps solve for this, and it also frees students to pursue pre-requisite classes that lead to more advanced coursework such as Advanced Placement (AP) and Dual Enrollment. These classes give ELL students the opportunity that all students in Delaware have to earn college credits while still in high school.


“Once English language learners overcome any language barriers, they often excel academically and have high college graduation rates,” said Michael Watson, chief academic officer of the Delaware Department of Education. “Through this pilot we witnessed students change – they put more value on their language skills and themselves. Having students recognize how smart they are and their potential for academic success is a strength all students deserve.”


Lebreton has plans to pursue pediatric nursing after graduation. She says she is happy she could satisfy her world language credits through testing. 


“It was good to get a test in Creole,” said Lebreton, who enrolled in Seaford High School two years ago. “The test helped me remember a lot. It’s the only test I’ve had here in my language.”

Alison May
(302) 735-4006