The SAT, ESL, and the demise of the Chicago Tribune

The SAT, ESL, and the demise of the Chicago Tribune May 22, 2024

Yes, I still subscribe to the Chicago Tribune, though I switched to the digital only option a while back, and I read the paper digitally relatively infrequently, but one opinion piece caught my eye from a bit over a week ago:

Why isn’t the SAT being translated into other languages?

by Gina Caneva, a librarian at East Leyden High School, in Franklin Park, a suburb a few miles west of Chicago, whose previous work experience includes 8 years as a high school English teacher in the Chicago Public Schools system, and another seven years as a “teacher-librarian” there before moving to the suburbs.  And she references that experience:  proctoring standardized tests, watching her primarily-Black students do poorly (or in her words, seeing “how low test scores did not capture my students’ brilliance”), becoming convinced that those tests are racially biased.  She explains that in her new position, she has a very linguistically-diverse student body, and that the SAT partially accommodates students without English fluency through translated directions and pop-up dictionaries.  Then she writes:

Being that more and more standardized exams are becoming digital, testing companies have the technology to easily provide full translations for students. Currently, on the SAT, directions can be fully translated into 10 languages, and students classified as ELL can have access to the online dictionary, which can translate up to 100 languages. Why not just offer the exam in other languages?

By providing standardized tests in English-only formats, testing companies are supporting an English-only philosophy that projects college-readiness as English-only.  What if a student has just arrived and knows some English but has trouble reading it? Yet in their home language, they are highly proficient and eager to go to college? Standardized English-only exams have no place for such students, even though the most recent U.S. Census Bureau logged 350 languages spoken in the U.S.

After lamenting that testing itself was only temporarily reduced or eliminated during the pandemic, but has now resumed, she makes her final call:

 It’s time for policymakers and our nation’s leaders to push testing companies, such as the College Board, to make changes to their exams to meet the needs of our multilingual student body.

So where to start?

In the first place, it is simply not possible to run the English portion of the exam through Google Translate and generate a usable test.  The questions test synonyms, with answer choices that have connotations and a deliberateness to the difficulty level of the vocabulary that a translation software can’t capture.  They test grammar, with “fill in the blank” type options (e.g., is “I competed in a triathlon; however, it was not an Ironman triathlon”?  Or “I competed in a triathlon, however; it was not an Ironman triathlon”?) which, again, a translation software cannot rewrite in a foreign language.

And in the second place, the SAT is designed to test readiness for attendance at English-speaking colleges.  Students across the world take the SAT to demonstrate their preparedness for US colleges, and, back when it was the norm to require the SAT or ACT for admission, the standard for international students was generally defined in terms of a level of SAT/ACT score that demonstrated sufficient English fluency and, if that isn’t strong enough, then the requirement of the TOEFL.  The SAT still plays an important role here:  not long ago I read a book about a woman who, as a child in Afghanistan, was forced to drop out of school, but as a teen, used Khan Academy to learn English, academic subjects in English, and then SAT prep, and (this was before the Taliban took over) went to Pakistan to take the SAT and gain admission to a US college.

Now, perhaps the author doesn’t believe in grammar as a concept, and really intends that only some general concept of reading comprehension should be tested.  And maybe she’d like a test which splits out grammar and comprehension and which isn’t explicitly designed to test college readiness.  But that’s not what the SAT is about, and that’s not what university studies in the US are about, and it is simply absurd in the US to believe that translation software eliminates the need to learn English to succeed in the U.S.

And the Chicago Tribune?

Yeah, this would not have been published a decade ago.

Yes, there would have been plenty that I would have disagreed with, but the quality of the reporting would have been credible, and the opinion columnists would have been knowledgeable.  Now, the quality has dropped dramatically.  Near as I can figure, they have calculated that a large portion of their subscribers are “locked in,” that (whether paper or digital subscribers) they keep their subscriptions out of a sense of tradition, because it’s part of what you do to be informed about the world.  You can allow the quality to deteriorate, the quantity of news reported to drop, the website to load painfully slowly, etc., and you’ll come out ahead because you won’t suffer lost subscriptions to the same degree as you save with lower expenses.  You can pay your reporters a pitifully low salary and still have enough of them stick around (motivated by their desire to “be a reporter” or to fight for their causes rather than by pay) to have enough content to publish.  On the other hand, trying to improve the paper by increasing wages to get better staff would cost more than the added revenue of new subscriptions.

Presumably, the Trib isn’t alone in this strategy. And I’m not even going to say that they shouldn’t be doing this, because the alternatives are not obvious.

As one comparison, the Sun Times has merged with the local public radio to become a non-profit paper, though I’m not entirely clear how that worked but it seems that the station got big bucks from some significant local foundations, including the Pritzker Traubert Foundation, where the “Pritzker” in the name is Governor JB Pritzker’s older sister Penny; whether the foundations actively cover operating costs and whether they influence the political angle of the reporting (which has always been left-wing and seems more so now) is not clear to me but the “solution” that newspapers should be nonprofits funded by the government has always had the sticking point that government officials are not known for allocating money impartially, and having newspapers “survive” by doing reporting that a given government or bureaucracy approves of is not much of a win, either.

test-taking, from WIkimedia Commons (public domain)


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