Opinion

Reimagining the ESL program at UW-Madison

Helen C White Hall houses both the English and the English As A Second Language departments

Helen C White Hall houses both the English and the English As A Second Language departments

Image By: Photo Courtesy of UW-Madison/Jeff Miller

Most of the articles I have written in my time as a contributor/editor at The Daily Cardinal have been on topics that touch me deeply. Topics that I feel strongly about. However, none of my previous pieces have been so entangled in my own personal experience.

As an international student, I had to prove my English proficiency to every American university I applied to. The entirety of my schooling was done in English but with most universities requiring me to send proof of proficiency because I wasn't schooled in an English-speaking country, I sent my TOEFL scores to all universities I applied to. According to the UW-Madison admissions policy, I probably should have qualified for a waiver, but I figured my score couldn’t hurt me. After all, I had received a 115/120 on the test — my score essentially placed me in the 99th percentile — and had transcripts reflecting that I had been schooled in English. 

But to my surprise, I had been requested to take the ESLAT — English As A Second Language Assessment Test — instead of the normal English test. At the time, I was eager to complete the placement tests to ensure a smooth transition to life at UW and figured it would be a mere formality, so I didn’t think much of it. But when I did face the test, I was surprised by its difficulty and upon receiving my results, I got a number which indicated the ESL course(s) I had to take on my way to satisfy my Comm-A requirement. 

I was also surprised by the fact that the English sample test was significantly easier than the ESLAT and that ESLAT didn’t have a single sample test online, like the English counterpart. It almost felt like international students were held up to unnecessarily high standards. Considering that the test primarily targets English speakers of second language proficiency, it seems odd to me that the test to determine their English language proficiency is harder than the standard test doled out primarily to local students. Diagnostic tests that followed in both ESL 117 and 118 were just as hard, with near zero pass rates in my experience.

For someone who speaks English as his first language, the result felt like an insult. Just because I wasn’t born on American soil, or in any English-speaking country for that matter, I found myself having to prove my proficiency even though my application and results spoke for themselves and I had nothing to prove.

I brushed it all aside, excited to kickstart life as a Badger. I wanted to get the ESL classes out of the way and did so in my freshman year. I also joined The Daily Cardinal as soon as I could and found myself as an editor by the end of my very first semester. No placement tests deeming me to be a non-native speaker could stop me from engaging with the language in a native manner. 

Now, everything I have talked about so far seems to fit a diary more than the pages of The Daily Cardinal but I believe it is necessary to discuss my personal experience at length to build on the main points that need to be considered. 

The courses themselves were nice. The instructors I had were great to me and my fellow classmates, providing insightful feedback and genuine care to each of us. The classes also helped me better interact with international students from different countries and I can certainly admit that I did learn some things from the courses I took. I did also get easy As in the courses, with ESL 118 boosting my GPA. 

However, this doesn’t mean the ESL program for degree seeking undergraduates is perfect. A student like me should not have been a part of the program, and the time and six credits used for ESL could have been used better. Perhaps my seat in the classes could have gone to a student more in need than me. But more than that, this speaks to a preconceived notion that most international students are less proficient than the required level, which just seems like too much of a one size-fits-all approach. Indeed, the whole program for undergrads could be reimagined to make it more effective.

Firstly, second language level proficiency does not necessarily mean ineptitude. Most international students applying to universities in English speaking countries must already meet the minimum basic English requirement to even gain admission and those who do meet the bar and get admitted are often multilingual, with English being one of the languages they are proficient enough in to be able to put together robust college applications. If students are able to clear the minimum bar, they do demonstrate enough skill to cope with — or get to grips with — the social and academic language expectations. A second round of testing that is significantly harder than the standard English test feels like overkill. Having only the standard test for Comm-A seems sufficient.

Now, I am aware that international students come from a variety of backgrounds and have varying experiences with academic writing. I personally never wrote papers in my school days using APA citation and referencing. This is likely what drove the creation of ESL courses for degree seekers. The idea of equipping all of us with skills to succeed is great. But the knowledge needed to write papers in such a manner could be provided by the UW Writing Center alone. The Writing Center already offers tutoring through Writing Fellows and workshops exist too, which don’t cost students anything, unlike for-credit courses. Perhaps the resources used to keep the ESL undergraduate program going could be diverted to expand the Writing Center, which would serve all students, rather than segregating international students through unreasonable testing standards. 

I also do recognize that some students with a satisfactory TOEFL/IELTS score could still require more help than workshops or resources and would certainly benefit from courses like ESL 117 and ESL 118. In such a case, the courses could be restructured as pass/fail style modules — perhaps like AlcoholEDU or fabrication lab training — and made available to such students as a choice for their own benefit or need. Every student wants to do their very best to succeed and if someone wants to cut corners, they will end up having to deal with academic misconduct charges and that’s their responsibility. Having all bases covered with the Writing Center and modules means that every consideration has been made by UW, without enforcing blanket coursework on us.

Either that, or the same for-credit courses are mandated for all students as Comm-A requirements, regardless of background, to ensure that everyone — local, international or out of state — is held up to the same standards.

Another factor to note is that the overwhelming majority of international students major in STEM or related fields, which are not known to depend on academic papers for coursework. Factoring breadth requirements, the overall university experience and the possibility of research though, the need for academic writing skills can be justified. But certainly not to the extensive levels seen in such courses. A lot of required guidance can be extended from the Writing Center. The courses can still exist in one form or another, but as an option for students who need/want it.

International students pay about thrice as much as in-state tuition, willingly. With limited access to aid and scholarships, the price doesn’t budge much but most of us see value in the Wisconsin Experience. However, it is hard to see value in paying about $5000 each for three credit courses that are enforced on us but can be reimagined as non-credit resources to create a better experience for everybody involved, without costing students extra tuition. The money and credits could be better utilized by us when not locked under rigid requirements, affording us the freedom of choice to make the most of our Wisconsin Experience.

While I am just a student who passed through the ESL system and no expert in these matters, I hope that such points can be taken into consideration for the future, so that students can be best equipped to keep up the promise of the Wisconsin Idea, without feeling aggrieved.

Anupras is a Sophomore studying Computer Science. Do you think the ESLAT should be scrapped? Do you think the ESL program should be amended? Send all comments to opinion@dailycardinal.com

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