Robert Espinal spoke no English when he arrived in New York from the Dominican Republic eight years ago. "I had to start from the bottom," he says.
But Mr. Espinal set his sights on an advanced degree. Like a growing wave of immigrant students, he enrolled at a community college.
Immigrant enrollment is rising at community colleges across the country, especially in immigration centers such as Florida, Texas, California, and Arizona. In the City University of New York (CUNY) community-college system, for example, students born outside the United States rose to more than 53 percent from about 46 percent between 1992 and 1996.
"We are one of the first steppingstones in their achieving of the American dream," says Dehlly Porras, professor of math and director of international programs at CUNY's LaGuardia Community College.
But the rising tide of nonnative English speakers brings special challenges to the open-admission schools, which offer vocational training as well as gateways to a four-year college. Increasingly, how to measure achievement and keep students moving through the system has become a source of controversy - one that centers particularly on English skills.
The problem is likely to intensify, as low costs attract students of limited means and the community colleges become better known internationally.
One more test
This spring, CUNY trustees decided to raise standards of English-language performance. Only days before commencement ceremonies began, the CUNY board of trustees decreed that all community-college graduates must pass the CUNY Writing Assessment Test (CUNY WAT), which was previously used only for language placement.
As a result, many students may not receive their diplomas in August as they'd expected. Many will take English classes over the summer, but they're also suing for their diplomas. A rally as well as a hearing were held on Friday.
The issue is not so much a question of standards as how best to measure student ability. Some have also questioned the fairness of requiring another test of students who thought they had completed their requirements.
"I believe that students should be assessed in English proficiency," says Joshua Smith, a professor at New York University. But he objects to the last-minute nature of the requirement.
For many immigrant students, studying at an American school is a demanding task. More than half of CUNY community college students report annual household incomes of $20,000 or less, and most work, many full time. More than a third are supporting children. A large percentage of legal immigrants are also on welfare, which allows them to attend college.
Beyond financial difficulties, foreign-born students also face cultural adjustments. Many students arrive with different educational norms.
Essay writing in the Western, direct point-to-point style, for example, differs from the more subtle and circular Asian style. And in many cultures, teachers are regarded as unimpeachable authority figures. Students must learn that they are expected to speak up and ask questions.
But unfamiliarity with English is the main obstacle. Students at LaGuardia, for example, speak more than 140 languages. English is a second or third language for 56 percent of CUNY community-college students.
As a result, English as a Second Language (ESL) programs have expanded community colleges nationwide. The controversy over the CUNY WAT illustrates the difficulties of running these programs and evaluating their results.
The CUNY WAT helps determine which initial English class freshmen will take. If they are placed in ESL or remedial English classes, they must pass the CUNY WAT or, at some schools, an alternative writing test before entering regular English.
Students at Hostos Community College in the Bronx complained that neither the WAT, nor a college-designed replacement, accurately measured their English skills. They held protests until the college decided to use the test as only one evaluating factor along with course work.
But these protests caught the attention of the CUNY board of trustees, who decided late in May to make the WAT a requirement for graduation in addition to freshman English.
Of 400 potential graduates at Hostos, 125 hadn't passed the test. Many students in the community-college system who had taken alternate writing tests must now pass the WAT to graduate.
Community-college faculty were not consulted in the decision, and some see the board's action as destructive and high-handed. "The community college and CUNY are under attack by its very board of trustees," says Lawrence Rushing, professor of psychology at LaGuardia.
The trustees contend they only want to ensure that standards are upheld. They insist the WAT is necessary to evaluate writing skills. But the community colleges want academic autonomy to make such decisions.
Opponents of the test claim it does not test writing ability. "We teach students how to plan, how to brainstorm, how to draft, how to revise, how to rewrite," says Brian Gallagher, an English professor at LaGuardia. He contends that the 50-minute exam does not allow enough time for this process. Previous reports by a CUNY task force criticized the WAT as well.
Despite the difficulties immigrant students face, the system works for thousands of immigrants, such as Espinal. After getting his General Educational Development, a high school equivalency diploma, Espinal enrolled at LaGuardia, where he has studied ESL while getting his degree.
Espinal is now a US citizen and expects to receive his associates degree in business management at the end of the summer. Right now, however, he is waiting to find out if he passed the CUNY WAT.