I’m working the front desk at my paying job when my friend Jesse stops by to chat. Jesse is working on getting his teacher’s certification through Tulane’s alternative preparation program and has been volunteering at local charter schools in New Orleans throughout the semester. That morning, he said, he went to a school to help tutor a group of eighth graders (who were all African Americans) for the writing portion of the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP). LEAP, let it be known, is a high-stakes standardized test, and from what I’ve heard through the grapevine, one of the most rigorous of its kind across the country. Jesse told me that he was utterly shocked by the lack of command the students had over Standard Edited American English (SEAE, also called Standard English). Content-wise, the students’ essays were great and showed that they could provide thoughtful responses to prompts. However, the students wrote the way they spoke, using the rules of African American Vernacular English (AAVE, or Black English). When Jesse asked the students to read sentences out loud and correct their errors (remove the contraction ain’t, change He been to He was, etc), the students largely could not identify their mistakes and rewrite their essays according to the rules of SEAE. He feared that with barely a month ‘til the test, the students may not be able to gain enough command over SEAE to pass it.
Having just finished a thesis on teaching composition to African Americans in public schools, I have much to say on this subject. However, I will limit my comments here to what this situation reveals about the degree of equity in English language arts classrooms in our schools. Since I was a student in the Jefferson Parish Public School System, the LEAP test has demanded an exorbitant amount of attention on the part of teachers, school administrators, policymakers, and students. Such is the case because schools fear that if their students do not score well on the test, they risk losing teachers, student enrollment, and funding. Fail to perform well for too long and the state may come and take over the school. Hence, for much of the year, the English language arts curriculum is dedicated to teaching and practicing solely skills on the LEAP tests like the rules of Standard English grammar.
Now I’m not saying that all students do not need to learn SEAE. On the contrary, students must. It is no secret that a student’s future success is largely contingent on his or her ability to utilize Standard English in speech and writing. However, if Jesse’s students fail the test because of linguistic differences, their future success will still be negatively impacted. When teachers and tests focus on how some languages or dialects (like Black English) are “incorrect,” it sends two messages to students. One, it gives student speakers of nonstandard dialects the impression that their language is less valuable, less valid, and inferior to Standard English. Two, it sends all students the message that only Standard English is correct or acceptable, which is simply not the case. Thus, nonstandard dialect speakers may believe that they do not, literally, have a voice in the classroom unless they learn to express themselves using the “standard” and Standard English speakers may believe they are inherently better because they can speak the way society says is correct.
This shows that there is an inherent bias in the system that affirms the notion that some people are better than others based on their language. This bias is then reflected in the methods we use to assess student achievement such as LEAP, which care little about the content of a student’s essay and focus primarily on whether or not the student used language that is deemed correct according to Standard English grammar. Such blatant favoritism for one linguistic system over another shows disregard for the value of linguistic diversity and language variation, things that increasingly exist in classrooms as the student population becomes more diverse. And of course, when there is favoritism for one group over another, one can conclude that the highest level of equity remains to be reached. Thus, to finish this one out, Jesse’s situation reminds me once more that until we can devise a method of measuring student achievement that reflects the values of diversity and multicultural education, including linguistic diversity, we have not succeeded in making our schools as equitable as possible.