Mysterious drop in ESL numbers

English classes for non-native speakers drew far fewer students this semester, prompting the English department to initiate an investigation to see whether its new assessment test is to blame.

Normally, English as a Second Language classes are at maximum enrollment, with large numbers of students wanting to add, said Keri DuLaney-Greger, an English professor at the Learning Center.

But that was not the case in January.

“Two courses were in danger of being cut,” DuLaney-Greger said, “but luckily, enough students enrolled to keep them going.”

She said she and other English professors believe the decline is a “fall out” from the department’s transition last semester to the Accuplacer Assessment Test, which is a computer-scored test of a student’s math, reading and writing skills.
Prior to the Accuplacer test, every student’s essay was read by two or three members of the English department using established guidelines on what an entering student’s paper should look like. 

English professor Irene Menegas believes this system was a great way to articulate the department’s standards and maintain them.

English professor Heidi Goen-Salter said she has met this semester with students floundering in English classes that were beyond their skill levels. 

She expressed concern the new Accuplacer system may be at fault. 

Although cheaper than hiring instructors to read and evaluate students’ essays, the current Accuplacer system cannot determine if a student is an English language learner. Consequently, it may recommend students for the wrong English classes.

“You get what you paid for,” Salter said.

Another test, the “Combined English Language Skills Assessment” test, or CELSA, is still available for non-native speakers to take at the Assessment Center, but students have to ask for it.

English department chair Nancy Zink suspects the new computerized assessment test may not be the only reason for students having trouble in their English classes.

Some students may self-select their courses, unaware their reading and writing skills are insufficient, she said.
English classes below English 122, the college’s transfer-level freshman composition course, do not require a prerequisite assessment score, so students can ignore their recommended placement level.

Although the current Accuplacer test cannot determine a student’s status for ESL classes, its parent company sells an additional component that could fix the problem.

Dulaney-Greger said the purchase is under consideration “as a way to make the transition between our native-speaker courses and our ESL courses seamless.” In addition, Zink said that the English department will hold a web conference on April 1 to look at the component to see whether or not to implement it.

Yet, money is still an issue.

The Accuplacer tests are regarded as units, with a price tag of $1.75 per unit. A single math test counts as one unit, while the English test counts as three, because it includes a one-unit reading component and a two-unit writing component in which the student’s essay is read and scored by a computer.

Beth Hauscarriague, dean of outreach, enrollment, and matriculation, said the College Board is considering whether to lower the cost of the Accuplacer test for California schools.

As of now, the ESL component could cost twice as much as the current Accuplacer test, she said.
Regardless, Hauscarriague said her department is committed to helping the English department overcome the difficulties of transitioning to this new system.


Contact David Matteri at [email protected]