By John Shmuel
A group of students and faculty is pushing Ryerson to offer better accommodation to ESL students on exams, following complaints that students were getting penalized for reading English slowly.
The issue came up last month when social work student Yahya El-Lahib did poorly on an exam when he ran out of time.
“It wasn’t an issue of not knowing the content. I needed extra time to process the questions being asked of me,” he said.
Out of the 53 questions on the exam, El-Lahib answered 39. He got most of the questions right.
El-Lahib said he attempted to contact the university several times about accommodation for ESL students.
“I went to the [Discrimination and Harrassment] office five times, and even sent e-mails. I just wanted to book an appointment to discuss this issue and they never got back to me,” he said.
After consulting a professor, he was told to contact the learning success centre. When they couldn’t help him, he took his concerns to the associate director of the School of Social Work, Purnima George.
“I saw it as a systemic issue, not an individual issue,” George said. She’s taken up the case, spearheading a petition asking the university to give special accommodation to ESL students.
This includes extra time to write exams, being able to bring dictionaries to use on mid-terms or finals, and changing the way essays are graded to focus more on content and ideas, with a separate mark for grammar and language.
Ryerson President Sheldon Levy said that ESL students should bring their concerns to the professor as well as access the school’s educational services.
George argues the problem is that ESL students need extra time to translate their ideas to a second language, and not that they need additional education on a topic.
“These students are not asking for any compromises in the standards of expectations from faculty members. They’re willing to put in what’s needed. They just need a little more time,” George said.
Third year social work student Melanie Temple, co-chair of the Social Work Student Union, said that the system was keeping otherwise capable students from making the grade.
“A good measure of education isn’t how fast you can answer a question,” she said.
Some professors have begun to accommodate ESL students by giving them additional time to write exams. But George stresses that is not enough.
“It should not be left to individual students and faculty members to make accommodation,” she said. “This should be considered a larger, systemic issue.”