I was just talking to a friend who teaches ESL to retired senior citizens in a free class offered at a community center here in NYC. She talked to me about her students and what it’s like working with her students, some whom are in their 90’s!

For them taking the class is not a matter of career advancement; they are already retired. Nor is it a matter of gaining survival English skills—they have some already and have found ways to get by for years with what they’ve got. In fact, most of them are not interested in “studying” English in any way that resembles their own schooling decades ago. Many are not literate in their native languages and more than a few have had tramatizing experiences in their former schooling.

Instead, her students mostly come to the class for the chance to practice speaking in English, since they report that they don’t speak English with their friends and family members. They relish the enriching opportunity to communicate in English about topics of interest with people with whom they wouldn’t normally be able to talk. The class is a mix of seniors from various countries and language backgrounds. She recounted a heated debate they got into—in English—about the legalization of marijuana, for example. Imagine the insight seniors can bring to any issue, having lived through so much and bringing perspectives from around the world.

Attendance is inconsistent, my friend says, because the class is free and these are adult students with freewill (unlike my 13 year olds). The organization has no policy mandating attendence so the seniors can show up when they want.

Here’s the kicker though. By law, my friend must make her students take a standardized test of their English skills. Really?! In fact, there is pressure for her to show progress in these test scores over time in order for the organization to maintain the program. (I’m not sure whether the pressure is originating from within the organization or from outside.) Apparently this federal law was enacted in 1988 so I guess it’s nothing new but it still seems ridiculously inappropriate in this situation.

I can imagine places where a standardized test could be an appropriate tool for an ESL school to use to assess student learning and demonstrate growth, and some groups of seniors would be totally up for this kind of challenge. But does it need to be mandated? What do you think? Must our grandparents and great-grandparents be subjected to standardized testing? Should teachers be able to use their discretion and find other ways to demonstrate the progress of their adult students?

Let me know if I’m missing something because I know relatively little about this field. At the moment though, I’m definitely shaking my head.


[image credit: articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com]

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