Stateline Story

States Credit Foreign Language Study

  • June 24, 2008
  • By Pauline Vu

For the past few years, Jola Bicki has dutifully brought her two sons to the local Polish language school in New Britain, Conn., for 33 Saturday mornings. For their four-hour-a-week commitment, her boys received no payback other than nurturing a link to their family's heritage.

"When other kids sleep or play or do different programs, I have to drag my kids to school, and they didn't like it," said Bicki, who is on the language school's Board of Directors. "I pay for school, they study language and they get nothing."

But that's about to change, thanks in part to Polish Language School Inc., where Bicki's sons studied. A new law, passed at the school's urging, allows students who attend these heritage schools and pass a language proficiency test to earn up to four elective credits toward fulfilling the state's high school graduation requirement or credit specifically toward a foreign language requirement.

The school, which has been operating 47 years and has more than 500 students, proposed the idea to local legislators after Bicki learned at a national Polish school conference that a handful of other states - including California, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Virginia - offer foreign language or general credit for study at a heritage school.

The trend reflects a growing movement to award credit for foreign language proficiency, according to Debbie Robinson, world languages consultant for Ohio's department of education and president of the National Council of State Supervisors for Languages .

In addition to rewarding learning at heritage schools, some states grant high school foreign language credit for college courses, online courses or study abroad. Ohio already grants credit for certain activities, like study abroad and educational travel, but the state board of education is working on developing a credit-by-proficiency plan by March 2009 required under a 2006 law.

"There is recognition, not only in world languages but other disciplines, that there are opportunities to learn that extend beyond traditional brick-and-mortar schools between the hours of 7:30 am to 3 pm," Robinson wrote in an e-mail to Stateline.org. Some states also allow credit-for-proficiency in other courses as well - for example, in Algebra.

North Carolina is among some states that allow districts to set their own policies allowing credit for foreign language proficiency. In Wake County, for example, students can submit scores on national standardized tests for foreign languages, like the SAT tests. If no standardized test exists for their language, students can request a proficiency assessment from the University of North Carolina.

In Connecticut, students are required to present a certificate of attendance from a nonprofit language school and pass a standardized test approved by the education commissioner to earn credits.

State Sen. Donald DeFronzo (D), one of the bill's key sponsors, said students who receive outside foreign language credit have more time for other classes, can graduate earlier or take college-level classes, while freeing up spaces in their high school's foreign language classes.

"There were a variety of benefits. No one could actually identify any drawback," DeFronzo said. "If you're in school, and you're going on a Saturday, this recognizes the initiative of the children."

Although Connecticut doesn't have a statewide foreign language graduation requirement, the state board of education is now developing new high school graduation requirements to present to the General Assembly next year. Those proposals currently include a one-year foreign language requirement, said Thomas Murphy, a spokesman for the Connecticut education department.

In New Jersey, the most popular outside language programs that students attend to meet the state's one-year foreign language requirement are the weekend Chinese and Greek schools, said Cheri Quinlan, the state's world languages coordinator.

Students there can receive credit only if the local district doesn't teach the language they are studying at the heritage school. To determine proficiency, the New Jersey education department recommends that districts use tests administered by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), which offers oral and written proficiency tests in 65 languages.

In California, the tests are created by the heritage schools, but the principal of the public school granting credit must approve the course and test. With such a diverse population in California, students there have received credit for studying a variety of languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew and Japanese - sometimes the language a student speaks at home.

One big role of heritage schools, said Marty Abbott, ACTFL's education director, is teaching students who may be fluent speakers of a foreign language that they use with their families, but who cannot read and write that language.

Abbott previously worked for Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia for 32 years as a teacher, foreign language coordinator and director of high school instruction; during that time, the district allowed students who spoke a foreign language at home or studied it at a heritage school to prove proficiency for credit with a writing sample.

That was a turnaround long in the making. "At the turn of the century … we actually discouraged people who came to this country from maintaining their native language," Abbott said. "That was a mistake."

Tags: Education