Graduate students allege discrimination

A number of Chinese graduate students have recently claimed that the English proficiency exam Yale uses to screen prospective teaching assistants is unfair.

The students, many from math and science departments, said they faced discrimination both before and after they passed the standardized SPEAK test used to determine English abilities. Graduate School officials said the screening process is fair to all students and the test — modeled on one developed by the Educational Testing Service — is the best available because it provides a standard for measuring spoken language ability.

More than 300 graduate students have signed a grievance alleging that Yale discriminates against Chinese students by calling their English language skills into question. GESO organizers said a majority of the University’s 274 Chinese graduate students signed the grievance, which was filed last Thursday.

Cong Huang GRD ’09, a graduate student in statistics and president of the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars at Yale, said he has yet to pass his SPEAK test after having taken it twice, even though he has completed a course at Yale’s English Language Institute. Huang said he thinks the proficiency test is subjective and the grading may disadvantage students from China and Korea.

“For me, I think the grader … maybe had some unconscious discrimination against the Asian accent,” Huang said. “If I can communicate with all of the people, then why can’t I pass this test?”

Until he passes the test, Huang said, he is ineligible to teach undergraduate sections, so he may have to become a grader to fulfill the teaching requirement for the Statistics Department.

“The Chinese students take all of the grading, which for me, I think, is not a good way to go,” Huang said.

SPEAK test questions frequently ask students to narrate a cartoon, describe a map and answer open-ended questions in English, said Jan Hortas, director of the ELI. Pronunciation and limited vocabulary are often reasons why students fail the test, Hortas said, but students of all backgrounds often pass.

“Every year, we do have many Chinese students who have worked hard to improve their spoken language skills who do pass,” Hortas said.

The test is based primarily on students’ overall comprehension, she said. When students fail, instructors at the ELI — which also offers courses to prepare students for the test — listen to the tape and provide suggestions for improvement.

Yale and many other graduate schools use the SPEAK test because it offers a standardized assessment of language skills, Hortas said, but the University also permits students who come close to passing to qualify for teaching positions by giving a presentation in their academic field. In addition to spoken-language courses, ELI offers a writing class focused on academic writing in English.

“I have heard from professors that they’re having to proofread and revise students’ prose so that it reads well in English,” Hortas said. “That hasn’t kept anyone from being a TA. It may just be an issue in certain departments that want to publish their students’ work.”

But some students claim that discrimination against Chinese students may continue after they pass the SPEAK exam.

At a rally organized by the Graduate Employees and Students Organization last week, Xuemei Han GRD ’09 said she was told by a faculty member that it is more difficult to work with her because she is not a native English speaker, and editing and proofreading her papers requires considerably more time. Han had already passed the SPEAK exam.

After the rally, GESO spokeswoman Mandi Jackson GRD ’07 said Chinese students who have good language skills but noticeable accents face a disadvantage.

“There’s an assumption that their language skills will not be good,” Jackson said. “It’s partly their accent they’re judged on, and not their speaking ability.”

Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said the University recently used funds from a grant by the Council on Graduate Studies to hire a writing tutor to work with graduate students from the nine departments funded by the grant.

“That can involve people who have writing problems because English is not their first language,” Butler said.

Butler declined to comment further. He is the final arbiter of grievances against faculty and administrators at the Graduate School, including the complaint delivered by GESO representatives last week.

While the SPEAK test is supposed to ensure that all undergraduate TAs are proficient in English, several students said they have been in courses — particularly in the Mathematics Department — in which the TA had difficulty communicating. Lauren Dunn ’08 said her TA’s Russian accent made it harder to understand the material and more difficult to pay attention in class.

“The sections that do have a TA who is a native English speaker are always impossible to get into,” Dunn said.

Chase Correia ’08 said his math TA last year had a strong accent, but because the vocabulary of math is limited, he said understanding his TA was not difficult.

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