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Connecting assessment to instruction for English Learners

By Carol Johnson, PhD, National Education Officer

According to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA), nearly ten percent of K–12 public school students in the US are English Learners. 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 2017), however, 63% of English Learners in grade 8 performed “below basic” in reading, and 71% performed “below basic” in math. This makes graduating from high school four years later challenging, but not impossible.

How to determine English Learners’ current achievement levels

In this post, I’d like to show you how thoughtful analysis of your data will help you to better connect assessment to instruction, so you can meet 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® (example shown below) helps you answer 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 approaching benchmark and are considered “on watch.” Students in the yellow section need intervention, and students in the red section need urgent intervention.

Figure 1

While a grade-level screening report tells you how a student’s current achievement level compares to grade-level benchmarks, it does not tell you if that is a reasonable expectation, given the student’s current level of English proficiency. This leads to the second 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? The benefit of sorting students in the same grade by ELP level is that you can clearly see the relationship between their English language proficiency and their academic achievement.

Figure 2

In the Screening Reports shown above, 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.

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 you with another important data point to guide instruction in the classroom. How so? Let’s take the example of an English Learner who’s at WIDA 3 and is in the urgent intervention category. Generally, students at WIDA 3 are conversational in English but haven’t yet established academic language in English. This is not an easy task, and it’s not unusual for students to remain at WIDA 3 for a year or more.

If our hypothetical student recently moved from WIDA 2 to WIDA 3, it’s not necessarily concerning that he’s in urgent intervention. However, if he’s been at WIDA 3 since last school year and remains in the urgent intervention category, this is an indication that he may need additional support.

Before we move on, I want to point out that Star Assessments allow you to disaggregate data by ELP level no matter which English language proficiency assessment your state has adopted. So, while I’ve used levels from WIDA’s ACCESS for ELLs assessment in this example, educators in Texas can disaggregate data by TELPAS level, educators in California can disaggregate data by ELPAC level, etc.

How to target instruction for English Learners

We’re now ready to answer our third key question: Which skills are your English Learners ready to learn? This is often the moment when, as educators, we feel a slight sense of panic: If our students aren’t meeting grade-level benchmarks, our first reaction might be to provide more intensive instruction on grade-level skills in order to help them “catch up.”

However, if your students don’t yet have the English to learn these skills, this strategy is unlikely to succeed. You instead need to meet your students where they are.

Star Assessments are built on learning progressions for English Language Arts (ELA) and math that map the development of knowledge and skills across domains. When students complete a Star test, they’re placed at the appropriate point in the progression, based on the skills they’re able to demonstrate in English.

As shown below, Star’s Instructional Planning Report then shows you the specific skills each student is ready to learn. For our hypothetical English Learner at WIDA 3, these are grade 3 skills, even though the student is in grade 5. This is not surprising: Based on the student’s Star scores, he will likely struggle to master grade 5 skills, given his current ELP level. A better solution might be to begin where he currently performs in English, taking him from where he is now to where he needs to be in the future.

Figure 3

Additional support for Spanish-speaking English Learners

So far, we’ve talked about assessing students’ ELA and math achievement in English, regardless of their native language. Now consider the fact that over 75 percent of the English Learners in US public schools are native speakers of Spanish.

Imagine how amazing it would be to identify the skills your native Spanish-speaking English Learners are able to demonstrate in 1) English and 2) Spanish. This is possible using Star Assessments in Spanish, which assess the same domains and skills as the English versions. This also leads to our next set of questions, which are unique to this population:

Do your native Spanish-speaking students have skills in Spanish they cannot yet demonstrate in English? A report like the one shown below 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 4

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 final 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—along with the skills they’re ready to learn next in each 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.

The right data at the right time

Connecting assessment to instruction for English Learners depends on having the right data at the right time for every student. The right data reveals:

  • How your English Learners are doing compared to grade-level benchmarks
  • How they are doing compared to other English Learners in the same grade and at the same ELP level
  • Which skills they’re ready to learn next, so you’re able to meet your students where they are today—and begin moving them forward
  • How Spanish-speaking students’ ability to demonstrate skills in their native language compares to their ability to demonstrate the same skills in English, which informs dual-language programs and/or provides a starting point for English-only instruction

In this way, Star Assessments give you a more complete picture of every English Learner, so you can better connect assessment to instruction in your classroom and across your district.

Looking for more insight on how to best support your English Learners? Watch Carol’s on-demand webinar for more practical tips on connecting assessment data to daily instruction.

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.

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