Are Children Learning

New standards for ELL students aim to broaden vocabulary, boost achievement

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Students participate in a craft at a joint event between Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and the Nashville Public Library to teach immigrant families about the public library system.

When Dottie Critchlow taught second grade at Nashville’s Haywood Elementary in the 1990s, about half of her students left class for an hour each day for English instruction. When they returned, their English might be a little better, but they had missed valuable content in other subjects.

Critchlow struggled to determine their comprehension of subjects like math, because even if they could do addition or subtraction, they didn’t have the English vocabulary to describe it.

“Trying to find ways to help them learn and produce evidence of their learning was difficult,” Critchlow said.

Almost 20 years later, Critchlow is the head of instructional support for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, and oversees English language learners. She said she and other officials in Metro Nashville Schools are excited that this year, Tennessee is implementing new standards for English language learners. Critchlow and her colleagues are confident they’ll address the concerns she had as a classroom teacher.

The new-to-Tennessee standards were developed by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction as part of a federal grant competition in response to the No Child Left Behind Act. The standards are  now updated by the  the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) consortium, and used by schools in 35 states and Washington, D.C.

The No Child Left Behind Act revolutionized approaches to teaching English to non-native speakers by requiring that states test their English learners and be held accountable for the results. That meant that just learning English wasn’t enough — students learning English also had to learn the same content as their peers. Today, test scores in Tennessee carry even more weight than they did in the early 2000s. School-wide scores are now a factor in most teachers’ evaluation scores, and determine whether a school is eligible to be taken over by the state or school system.

The purpose of the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment standards is to ensure students learning English get rich instruction in subjects other than English, and learn academic language, as well as the conversational English they might use with friends.  Students learning English are still pulled out of their normal classrooms, but they now get academic content, sometimes in their native language, in addition to English instruction.

“In order for kids to be successful, it’s not just enough to know the everyday language of getting to talk in the cafeteria,” said Timothy Boals, who developed the standards while the head of English instruction at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and now heads the consortium that developed the standards from its headquarters at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “It’s also knowledge of the language of discourse in science and math that helps students be successful.”

The standards are being introduced in Tennessee at a time when the number of English language learners is growing rapidly, especially in Nashville, which has thirty percent of the entire state’s population of students learning English. More than 130 languages are spoken by students in the school system, and 14 percent of students are English language learners, the Tennessean reports.  Thirty percent live in non-English speaking homes.

There are five standards: that students learn social English (i.e.”hi,” “bye,” “how are you?”) , and that they learn “the academic language” for the four core subjects — math, science, literature and social studies. The framework of the standards also includes supports for students, like bilingual dictionaries and pictures, so they can start learning other subjects even before they know English, as well as the English vocabulary related to academics.

“You have to make sure that you’re putting content with your ESL instruction, or you’re going to do poorly on achievement [on standardized tests],” said Kevin Stacey, the director of English Language Learning for Metro Schools.

Previously, the state used the English Language Development Assessment (ELDA) standards, developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which focused more on conversational English and had not been updated to include as much guidance in helping students meet Common Core standards, Stacey said.

The idea underlying the World-Class standards is that students need “scaffolding,” Boals said.  Students with fewer English skills need more support to do their academic tasks.  At first they might need to do coursework in their native language, then with the help of a dictionary. Finally, the scaffolding can be removed, and they can do grade level coursework in English.

The standards also come a year after Tennessee schools fully implemented the Common Core standards for math and language arts. The Common Core state standards rely heavily on actions like “describing.” For example, a kindergartener might be asked to describe a whole number. The new standards require English-learning students to learn the vocabulary that will allow them to meet such a Common Core standard.

“It helps us out tremendously because the WIDA standards work much better with Common Core,” Stacey said.

The new standards also are meant to allow English language learners to go more in-depth with engaging material, instead of spending their whole day on tedious language exercises, Boals said.

Stacey and Critchlow predict the switch in standards will come at a cost, albeit one outweighed by benefits.

“I do believe it will possibly take a little bit longer to reach proficient,” Stacey said. 

But, Critchlow added, “when they exit, they will be stronger students.”

pisa power

A surprising link: when kids work harder on tests, their countries’ economies grow more

American politicians often wring their hands over the country’s mediocre performance on international tests. New research finds one reason they’re right to worry: a country’s scores on one of those tests, known as PISA, do tend to mirror its economic growth.

That research also arrives at a more surprising finding — one that could add to the debate about the importance of teaching students “soft skills” in school.

Students’ ability to push through to the end of the test — their “stick-to-it-iveness,” if you will — was equally able to predict whether a country was on an upward economic climb, the study found.

Students in certain Northern European and Asian countries, for example, did nearly as well on questions toward the end of the test as they did on its early questions. The idea is that those students don’t give up easily, a technique that’s been used in previous studies to get at hard-to-measure skills like “grit” or perseverance.

In some cases, countries where students did similarly at the start of the test saw big differences in how quickly performance declined over the course of the exam.

On the 2006 PISA, the U.S. scored in the middle of the pack of nearly 60 countries in both overall performance and in students’ decline between the first question and the last.

Past studies have found that a country’s performance on international tests predicts future economic growth, but the latest study, published in the peer-reviewed Economics of Education Review, is among the first to try to quantify the impact of these harder-to-measure traits.

“Both the starting performance and the performance decline are positively and significantly associated with economic growth,” the researchers write.

Worth noting: the U.S. has been an outlier in the past when it comes to PISA. Our economic growth has outpaced other countries’ with similar scores.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.