Connecting assessment to instruction for English Learners

By Carol Johnson, PhD, National Education Officer

According to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, more than 4.85 million English Learners were enrolled in US public schools during the 2014–15 school year. Just as for native English-speaking students, the goal for English Learners is to graduate from high school ready for the college and/or career of their choice. Based on recent research (NAEP 2015), however, 72% and 69% of grade 8 English Learners performed “below basic” in reading and math, respectively. This makes graduating from high school four years later challenging, but not impossible.

Thoughtful analysis of the data will allow you to connect assessment to instruction, fully meeting the needs of all your English Learners. Such an analysis begins by looking for answers to several key questions:

  • The first question you need to answer is, How are your English Learners doing compared to grade-level benchmarks? The visual nature of the Screening Report in Renaissance Star Assessments® (Figure 1) easily answers this question. Students whose scaled scores place them in the green section are performing at or above benchmark; students who place in the blue section are considered on watch; students in the yellow section need intervention; and students in the red section need urgent intervention.

    Figure 1

    Figure 1

    While a grade-level Screening Report tells you how a student is coming along in mastery of grade-level benchmarks, it does not tell you if that is a reasonable expectation given the student’s current ability to function in English. This leads to the next important question.

  • How are your English Learners doing compared to their “true” peers—other EL students in the same grade and at the same English language proficiency (ELP) level? In the Screening Reports shown in Figure 2, students are grouped by ELP level. Using WIDA levels as an example, it is easy to see that all students at WIDA 1 would be considered in need of urgent intervention (red). However, students at WIDA 2 are making gains, with half of them in need of intervention (yellow) and half in need of urgent intervention.

    Figure 2

    Figure 2

    By the time students reach WIDA 3, the majority have moved from urgent intervention to intervention. Once students reach WIDA 4, most are on watch (blue), but by WIDA 5, they are on their way to approaching benchmark (green).

    Sorting data in this way provides teachers with another important data point to guide instruction in the classroom.

These first two questions provide information about students’ achievement in English, irrespective of their native language. Now consider the fact that over 3.7 million of the English Learners in US public schools during the 2014–15 school year were native speakers of Spanish. Imagine how amazing it would be to have the ability to identify the skills your native Spanish-speaking English Learners are able to demonstrate in 1) English and 2) Spanish. This leads to our next set of questions:

  • Do your native Spanish-speaking students have skills in Spanish they cannot yet demonstrate in English? A report like the one shown in Figure 3 provides the answer to this question concerning the grade-level literacy skills a student can demonstrate in English versus the skills he or she can demonstrate in Spanish.

    Figure 3

    Figure 3

    The black dots represent the student’s ability to demonstrate mastery of skills in English. The white dots represent the student’s ability to demonstrate the same skills in Spanish. Both sets of scores appear mostly in the red section of the report, which tells you the student has not yet mastered these skills in either language. But the scores also reveal the student is much more able to demonstrate mastery in Spanish (white dots) than English (black dots).

    How you use this information in the classroom depends on the language of instruction, which leads us to our next important question.

    • Do your students receive instruction in both English and Spanish or in English only? Knowing the grade-level skills your students can demonstrate by language can be used to inform instruction in both the English-speaking classroom and the Spanish-speaking classroom. While it is more obvious how this information applies to a student receiving instruction in both languages, consider the value of knowing that students have already mastered skills in their native language that they simply cannot yet demonstrate in English.

      By way of example, imagine you are a grade 5 teacher in a district where students receive instruction in English only. You have a Spanish-speaking student who is new to your school. The data from this student’s Screening Report shows he reads at a grade 3 level in English. Fortunately, the student was also tested in Spanish, and this data shows he reads at a grade 6 level in Spanish. You now know that this student has already developed literacy skills beyond his current grade level. This is the kind of data you need to target instruction to his specific needs.

    Connecting assessment to instruction depends on having the right data. The right data reveals:

    • How your English Learners are doing compared to grade-level benchmarks

    • How they are doing compared to others in the same grade and at the same English language proficiency level

    • How their ability to demonstrate skills in Spanish compares to their ability to demonstrate the same skills in English

    In this way, Star Assessments give you a more complete picture of every student, so you can better connect assessment to instruction.

    Looking for more insight? Watch Carol’s on-demand webinar to learn practical tips for supporting English Learners in your district.


Carol Johnson, PhD, National Education Officer
Carol Johnson, PhD, National Education Officer
Carol Johnson is a bilingual educator and National Education Officer at Renaissance. She holds a PhD in Second Language Acquisition & Teaching, specializing in how people learn second languages.


  1. Rita Platt says:

    Very informative. I think it is critical that we always think about how we serve our ELLs.

  2. Laura says:

    Interesting information. I only had one student who was bilingual and she moved away.

  3. Lauren Thrasher says:

    This is a struggle that we have in our school district. We have a high Hispanic population in our district and we are looking at all avenues to help close the gap.

  4. Lisa Capon says:

    Interesting and informative

  5. carly says:

    One third of my class speaks Spanish; however, not all can read it. This could help those who can.

  6. Virginia D. Wiedenfeld, M.Ed. says:

    Great way to analyze whether our English Language learners are prepared for the workforce!

  7. Alecia Walkuski says:

    Very interesting. The related webinar was very insightful.

  8. Katy says:

    Great article! I wish we were doing the STAR test.

  9. Andrea says:

    All of the subgroups are important to look at data comparatively, so glad these graphs make that easy!

  10. JoAnn E Mayfield says:

    Good to know.

  11. In my experience I’ve seen ELL begin with a rough start, but almost always they rise above their peers. They’ve used several areas of the brain in learning more than one language which is taxing, but pretty cool in the end!

  12. Great article……It’s all about conversation, relationships, and language development through pictures, words and conversations!

  13. alli says:

    My EL student rocked his STAR test this year. Pull out EL support, push in para support and peer helpers made it happen!

  14. I think it helps if the teacher is able to communicate in both languages! Star assessments are valuable data tools.

  15. Jody Steinhaus says:

    Thank you! Info on how to meet the needs of students, all while closing learning gaps, is valuable.

  16. Laura says:

    ELL students have been steadily increasing in my district. This was a good article about how to gear our resources to them.

  17. P R says:

    My two ELL students are on grade level now and performing equally with their peers. This article was very informative and gave me some insights.

  18. RENEE P GRAHAM says:

    Love my EL students who soak up English like a sponge!

  19. Christine Fuller says:

    I wonder what the correlation is between STAR reading & the new test for EL in Calif.

  20. Milecha Young says:

    Very interesting

  21. Great article. I think it’s we should do our best to close the gap.

  22. Ami Edwards says:

    Good article!

  23. Great article! It was very interesting! I think that it is so important that we do all we can to try to close the gap!

  24. Karla says:

    Interesting. Some of the English Language Learners do not have the experiences to draw from to be able to relate to the vocabulary or text they are being asked to interpret.