City Council Testimony: Tiffany Bhavnani

On Wednesday, December 19th, many educators from around Philadelphia gave testimony to City Council in opposition to the overwhelming number of standardized tests that are administered in Philadelphia. Here is the spoken and written testimony of one such teacher.

Dear Honorable Councilwoman Blackwell:

I am one of the most privileged teachers in the School District of Philadelphia, because I am an ESOL teacher at Furness High School. I work with intelligent, creative, and enthusiastic students whose native language is not English in a neighborhood school whose student population includes a great deal of political refugees, unaccompanied and undocumented minors, immigrants from over 20 countries, students with IEPs and some students who arrived only after they were ejected from Catholic, private, charter, or special admit schools, but for whom our doors are always open. English language learners account for 57% of Furness High School’s current student population of 682 students. Even our Principal is a former Furness ESOL student and refugee from Cambodia, and his ESOL teacher at the time is still teaching at our school.

Do you know the percentage of English Language Learners at Central? 1% of their 2300+ student population. Masterman 0%, CAPA – 1%, Engineering & Science – 3%, Science Leadership – 3%. Why do you think ELL students are virtually absent from the city’s academically selective high schools and charters? Because English language proficiency has a profound impact on standardized testing. The elite public schools and charters do everything possible to keep or improve their test scores, unfortunately the major indicator of a school’s success. This means ESOL students are excluded from their esteemed populations to ensure high test scores.

The widely researched and accepted facts show that it takes a minimum of 5-7 years for a student to gain academic English, IF they are literate in their first language, AND they have content knowledge from their native education, which is far from the case with many of our ELLs in Philadelphia. Yet, these same students are expected to become “native-level” proficient in English after one, two or three years of ESOL and content area coursework in Philadelphia schools. It is utterly inappropriate academically, and is a practice that repeatedly makes our students feel deficient and defeated, despite obvious gains on the ACCESS test which IS designed for their assessment.

 Put yourself in their positions for just a moment, a Philadelphia legislator for one school year in a country vastly different from anything you’ve ever known. You have no family with you, or maybe one sibling, like many of my students. The food and water don’t agree with you and you have skin problems, and an upset stomach, and the lunch you’re served every day, you have to force down. The environment is hostile, especially when you’re coming from one extreme climate and going to another, maybe from a village to a crime-ridden city. Your whole support network of friends and neighbors that you relied on before, now consists of strangers who shout at you when you don’t understand them or respond as they expect you to. You spend 7 hours a day in classes in a foreign tongue, with a different form of writing and you don’t know how to write a single word. Imagine, every time anyone in your household has to communicate in this

new language it is your responsibility, for the bills, at the doctors, shopping, when school calls for a younger sibling. Then, midway through your school year, you will be given standardized tests in language proficiency, math and science. Do you think that you, an educated professional, literate in your first language, could pass any of the assessments at a high school level in your “new” language? Now, imagine each of those advantages you have as an American professional disappearing, and you are one of my students.

Common sense tells you that second language students don’t have a fighting chance to score “proficient” on standardized tests developed and “normed” on native English-speaking test populations. Even their English-speaking educated peers struggle to perform at a proficient level, in a district devoid of support for the learning needs of our students, many of whom live below the poverty level.

English language proficiency has a profound effect on assessment and its outcomes. These tests are not appropriate for our English language learners. They do not adequately assess their progress in learning—not only the English language, but in grade-level content. These assessments are not an accurate measure of their true achievement.

My students remain in school and continue their education despite the many academic, cultural and economic challenges they face on a daily basis. And what do we do to them? We force them to take test after test that they are not ready or able to succeed at. We make them cry in frustration to comply with mandates. We ask them to reach a proficient level on standardized tests even though they have not acquired the English language proficiency needed to meaningfully interact with the tests’ content. Then these test scores are used to label our school “low performing” even though they are attending one of the best schools for English language learners in the state.

If you were able to visit our school, and I personally invite you to do so, you would see students of all nationalities, religions, and political persuasions with rich and varied histories collaborating as they navigate a new world together. You will see them volunteering thousands of service hours with BuildOn. You will see them apply to, get accepted by and receive scholarships at quality universities all over the state. You will see ESOL students working with Americans in AP classes after only a few years here. You will see students sharing their culture, their lives, their academic endeavors with each other and their teachers. You will see the true meaning of proficiency, success, academic achievement and social responsibility. You will see a high performing school. The Keystone test will never show you any of this.

No, the Keystone will show you how our school failed. Our students are below basic. The teachers are unsatisfactory. A test which robs our students of weeks of instructional time as we complete 12 days of testing, without factoring in Benchmarks that we will also administer this year. All at the cost of millions of dollars, fully knowing that the students will not be proficient by this irrelevant test. The state of Pennsylvania will spend $58.3 million this school year alone on PSSAs and Keystone exams. Just think what that money could do to truly educate these young people.

 So, who wants to go to Fuzhou, China next fall for a reality check about standardized testing? Any volunteers? I am sure the Inquirer and Notebook would love to publish your scores. I wonder how many Chinese characters you could learn by March.


Tiffany Bhavnani, ESOL Teacher

Horace Howard Furness High School

School District of Philadelphia