When the Maryland General Assembly meets in 2024, legislators will have the opportunity to enhance language proficiency, education and immigrant justice. They can do so in a cost-effective manner by passing the Credit for All Language Learning Act to ensure higher education institutions in our state value our students’ and colleagues’ hard work in English language learning classes equally with comparable work in college world languages classes.

The CALL Act would award equal credit for equal work and expand pathways for diverse students to transfer from community colleges to Maryland’s impressive array of colleges and universities. This is especially important given the Supreme Court’s recent decision to eliminate affirmative action programs that consider race in college admissions.

We recognize the limitations of the status quo and can point to the CALL Act’s benefits for our students, the field of higher education and the culture and economy of Maryland.

Currently, Maryland colleges and universities do not award credit toward a degree for English language learning classes, but do award credit for world languages such as French, Arabic and Spanish. This means a student who takes introductory French has their learning validated, while a multilingual student from Cameroon who learns to write college-level essays in English does not. Placed side by side, the outcomes for ELL courses are equivalent if not significantly more advanced than undergraduate world language course outcomes. While states, from California to Rhode Island, have passed legislation valuing the multilingualism of college students, Maryland has yet to take action.

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Multilingual English learners are learning English as a second or even third or fourth language. The level to which they must learn English is parallel to a graduate-level world language course for native English speakers. For example, Sarah Barnhardt, a co-writer of the commentary, has a master’s degree in Russian linguistics. The level of Russian she needed to complete her academic work was similar to the advanced work students produce in the community college ELL courses she now teaches. Multilingual English learners must learn English to a level in which they can be successful academically and professionally, and their learning should be valued equally with that of their peers whose first language is English.

Data from several Maryland community colleges indicates that on average, multilingual English learners consistently outperform schoolwide averages in college composition and other 100-level courses. For example, at Howard Community College, data from the past five years shows that multilingual English learners who had taken previous English language learning courses have a pass rate 10% above average in college-level composition. This is an impressive level of language competence for which these learners currently get no credit or recognition toward college degrees.

Multilingual English learners studying at Maryland community colleges are an inspiration to us all. Most of them have had to overcome the daunting challenges of moving to and adjusting to life in a new country and culture. Many have left friends and family members to start lives in Maryland. Some have fled very difficult circumstances, including wars and political or religious oppression. Others have arrived in Maryland as high school students while simultaneously working multiple jobs, serving as translators for their parents and caring for siblings or grandparents at home. Still others are parents raising their children while studying to enter or reenter the workforce. They sometimes tell us that they want to set the best possible example for their children. Our students amaze and inspire us with their optimism, resilience and dedication — qualities and assets that benefit Maryland.

Studies from the Community College Research Center indicate that every additional semester a student spends fulfilling requirements that do not count toward their degree reduces the likelihood they will graduate. Maryland community colleges have responded by reducing the number of noncredit courses in math and English students need to take before becoming eligible for college-level courses in these subjects. This approach is beneficial for students whose first language is English but has put pressure on ELL programs and inadequately valued multilingual English learners’ advanced linguistic abilities.

Passage of the CALL Act, sponsored by Del. Jared Solomon and Sen. Malcolm Augustine, would affirm a positive view of multilingualism. It would probably also increase Maryland immigrants’ enrollment in community colleges and attainment of associate degrees. It would broaden and accelerate transfer pathways of these diverse students to bachelor’s degree-granting institutions in our state. Awarding credit for English language learning would also help advance multilingualism and social justice in Maryland.

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Owen Silverman Andrews is a staff member, Lama Masri is an administrator and Sarah Barnhardt, Amelia Yongue and Ray Gonzales are faculty members at community colleges in Central Maryland.

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