‘Language as an asset’: Multilingual students get credits for fluency

EVERETT — When families gathered this month for a Latino heritage dinner, Everett High School senior Jose Quezada acted as an interpreter for those who did not speak Spanish.

He was practicing his future career, a path he decided upon after taking a special test that let him earn three high school credits for his fluency in Spanish.

“At first, I was thinking maybe it’s a bit too hard, maybe that’s not really for me,” said Quezada, who wants to work as a Spanish interpreter. “After looking at the test results, I thought maybe I could actually proceed further.”

More than 2,000 students like Quezada have taken the World Language Assessment since Everett Public Schools started offering it in the 2015-16 school year. And 92% have earned at least one class credit from it. The district has given the test in 57 different languages.

The testing room, Quezada said, feels like a United Nations gathering, especially when students start the speaking portion of the test.

“You go inside the room and you see so many students from so many languages, and it’s really, really cool to see,” Quezada said.

The test helps students add electives to their schedule or earn biliteracy enhancements on their diplomas.

“It really honors students for the asset that being a multilingual person is on our global society,” said Catherine Matthews, the district’s director of assessment and research.

Students can sign up for the test starting in seventh grade. It’s offered twice a year, and students choose which languages ​​they want to test in. About 80% of the students do not speak English at home. They don’t have to be a native speaker of a language they test for.

To earn credit, a student must demonstrate fluency in reading, writing, listening and speaking. It’s not enough to know basic words and phrases. A student must show a strong command of the language.

For example, the Spanish reading portion includes paragraphs that are missing a phrase. Students choose the correct sentence from a list. Each phrase was “slightly changed,” so they might look the same to someone who is “barely learning Spanish” but is not fluent, Quezada said.

“So they are not just technically testing if you know how to say, ‘Hello,'” he said. “It’s more of these really thoughtful questions that some non-bilingual students only knowing English (well) wouldn’t really catch.”

A student’s “level of fluency” determines how many credits they earn, out of four. If they score less than the maximum, they can take the test again to try to earn the rest.

In Washington, students need 24 credits to graduate. Students who earn all four from the language test essentially open space for two-thirds of a school year worth of classes.

“Seventh and eighth graders actually make up a good percentage of the kids who are taking it, so before they go to high school, earning three or four credits changes their whole four-year plan,” Matthews said. “… They can look at those four years and say, ‘I have this extra space. I can do advanced science. I can study art. I can do more band. I can do whatever it is that I care about.’”

In the 2021-22 school year, Everett Public Schools led the county for the number of students who graduated with a “seal of biliteracy” on their diploma. The district had 176 students graduate with the seal, compared to 97 in Mukilteo and 94 in Edmonds, two similarly sized districts that awarded the second- and third-most seals in the county.

Quezada said he heard about the test in the morning announcements. His school counselor really encouraged him to take it, explaining how it would fit into his future career goals. He hadn’t heard about it when attending school in another district.

Each test has a price based mainly on how common the language is. Spanish costs about $20. More rare languages, like Wolof, the language of Indigenous people in some areas of Senegal, Mauritania and Gambia, can cost upwards of $300.

In Everett, students pay just $10 for the test. The school district covers the remainder of the costs. Matthews said that keeps it fair and affordable for students, no matter their language.

“We’re trying to remove barriers. It’s an equity thing,” Matthews said.

Students most commonly ask for one of six languages: Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Vietnamese, Korean and Ukrainian. Those account for about three-quarters of World Language Assessments in the district.

Still, tests are offered in any language, so Matthews has learned about several world dialects.

“Kirundi, Khmer, Karen, which I looked that up once,” she said while reading off the list of available tests. “You can see, there are languages ​​I’ve never even heard of before.”

If a test does not already exist, as was the case for Icelandic, the district and state work together to design one. Then it becomes available statewide, Matthews said.

“It might be one or two students here or there, but it benefits everyone,” Matthews said.

For Matthews, the granddaughter of a Grecian immigrant, the test bears special meaning. Her grandfather did not speak English when he moved to the United States, “and he felt it was a deficiency.”

Students who speak English as a second language work harder to keep up in class, Matthews said. They have to take more classes to learn the language their other classes are taught in, and they must translate or “decode everything,” she said.

“We’re creating a better system for our kids, because we are honoring their heritage, their culture, their language as an asset. … It’s an issue of helping students to understand that (their language) is an asset for them, for their future,” Matthews said. “It will support their dreams, not hamper them.”

“This is showing that you should get credit for what you already know and what you’ve already worked so hard to do,” she added.

Quezada, the Everett High senior, said the test opened up space for him to take a translation and interpretation certification program at the Sno-Isle TECH skills center. That certificate will transfer to college, so he has a leg up.

He added that “just looking at good results” from a test made him feel confident. It showed how much he has grown since moving to the United States about 10 years ago, he said. And it proved that “I haven’t lost my mother language.”

Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.

Mallory Pits: 425-339-3035; [email protected]; Twitter: @MalloryGruben.