No Exit for English-Language Learners in New York City

Published December 1, 2004

In New York, immigrant students who learn English as a Second Language (ESL) must pass a new ESL exit exam before they can join mainstream classes in English. Very few are passing the exam–not because they don’t know English, but because the passing score is set very high, at 96 percent.

In an October 2004 New York Times article, Samuel Freedman describes how only 7.5 percent of eligible pupils in New York City passed the ESL exit exam in 2002-03, even though half of the city’s English Language Learners successfully passed the English Regents Exam during the same academic year.

As Freedman explains, the disparity in pass rates on the two exams arises not so much from different content as from vastly different passing scores. The ESL exit exam requires a high school junior to score at least 71 of a possible 74 points to pass, or at least 96 percent. The Regents exam requires the same student to score only 65 of 100 possible points, or 65 percent, to receive a Regents-endorsed diploma.

For each of the past two years at Richmond Hill High School in Queens, the percentage of students passing the ESL exit exam has been just 0.7 percent, or four of 600 students. One of the school’s immigrant students, Shoeb Mahbub from Bangladesh, read Steinbeck, Shakespeare, and Machiavelli while in school and graduated last year in the top 20 of more than 400 seniors.

“He scored 89 on the English Regents,” writes Freedman. “He earned admission to City College’s pre-med program. Yet he failed the ESL test and was barred from taking a mainstream English class.”

Kamil Losiewicz, an immigrant from Poland, explained the problem with remaining in ESL classes.

“The amount of education I received wasn’t as high at it could have been,” he told Freedman. “The reading assignments, the writing assignments in ESL were really easy. I wanted writing at a high level, something that would help me in college. And by being with people in ESL who don’t speak English well, it definitely kept me from speaking at a high level.”