By Ann Dornfeld
Nick Barth is a freshman honors literature student at Chief Sealth High School. He loves to read. Right now he's in the middle of two 500–page books. One is "The Fellowship of the Ring," and—
Nick Barth: "—I'm reading a compilation of dystopic novels called 'Brave New Worlds,' and it's edited by John Joseph Adams."
Last year, Nick was pulled out of class at Madison Middle School to take a surprise test.
Nick Barth: "All they said is 'English proficiency,' and because we're Native."
Nick is White Earth Ojibwe, and he found himself in a room with other Native American kids.
Nick Barth: "They gave us questions like 'What do you live in?' And then it showed two pictures: a house or a basketball."
The test was the Washington Language Proficiency Test. It's usually given to kids who aren't fluent in English.
Nick Barth: "In the vocal quiz they made us sit down with some lady that I've never seen before. She made us pronounce words. They made us start with, like, one word and then they slowly built up to sentences."
Nick says some kids were so upset by the test that they tried to leave. But he says a security guard turned them around at the door.
Wendy London: "And what the literature suggests is that kids feel isolated and different and that they just don't fit in. And so this particular training is about—it really is targeting how to make kids feel like they're not separate."
But mom Sarah Kelly says singling out kids for English proficiency tests because they're Native is not the way to help kids fit in.
Sarah Kelly: "I think it's the very definition of irony. For them to execute the testing in this way and then use it for cultural competency is beyond ironic!"
Seattle Public Schools Native Education Program Manager Arlie Neskahi says he got a lot of phone calls and emails about the test.
Arlie Neskahi: "The test, then, is really strongly a bilingual type of test. And for most people it's a very basic and very elementary kind of test to go through."
Neskahi says a lot of parents were offended that their Native American children were given a test usually given to immigrants.
I'm not seeing any justification for the "surprise" test or the rigid attitude. Does London think Native youngsters will quickly learn English and "cheat" the school out of its funding? The whole thing smacks of a biased attitude toward nonwhite students.
This is an example of treating Natives as if they're savage and uncivilized. Hence it goes into the Stereotype of the Month contest.
For more on the subject, see Natives Experience Racism Every Day and NCLB Leaves Native Children Behind.
The parents and the students are right. What the Washington Schools did and continue to do is wrong. No school district has the right to test any child outside of the classroom without the signed permission of the parent. It is discrimination of the individual and/or the group they are placed into.
The parents and students should do more than contact the Seattle Public Schools Native Education Program.
Get vocal with the teachers, the principals and the district or state administrators with your concerns. As a former teacher, I know teachers have to do what they are told. But parents do not have to let their children at any age take a test that makes them feel inferior or discriminates against them.
It is a form of "academic bullying," that's my term. I worked for a Federal boarding school, and the test Nick Barth described as "pronoun words. . . one word and then they slowly built up to sentences." That was the English Proficiency test used on high school students to place them in grade level the first year I started teaching. It was idiotic in 1980s, and idiotic now in the 21st century.
Tell the parents to speak out for their kids rights.
Maybe it was one of those "get kids who obviously know English to take the ESL test so we get more money" things. If there's anything standardized testing has done, it's opened up new fields in the venerable test-taking art of ch'i ting (invented in ancient China roughly five minutes after the first civil service exam) for more money.
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