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.”

help wanted

Will third time be a charm? Tennessee searches again for online testing company

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen answers questions Thursday at a news conference about changes to Tennessee's testing program. The changes were supported by Dale Lynch (right), executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

After firing one testing company and hiring another in a pinch, Tennessee plans to launch a fresh search this fall for vendors — forging ahead with its switch to computerized exams, albeit more slowly than initially planned.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Thursday that the state will seek proposals from one or more companies to take over its troubled standardized testing program beginning in the 2019-20 school year. A track record of successful online testing is a must, she said.

Questar, which has handled the job the last two school years, will continue to oversee the state tests known as TNReady this year under an amended contract. Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said the company plans to pursue the new contract, too.

“We anticipate successful fall and spring administrations and hope to be afforded the opportunity to continue the momentum,” he told Chalkbeat.

McQueen said the state is ordering numerous changes next school year under Questar, including a modified timeline for transitioning from paper to computerized exams.

Instead of following the state’s initial game plan to have most students testing online next year, only high schoolers will stick with computers for their exams in 2018-19. All students in grades 3-8 — some of whom tested online this spring — will take their TNReady tests on paper.

The exception will be Tennessee’s new science test. Because that assessment is based on new academic standards and won’t count toward student grades or teacher evaluations in its first year, students in grades 5-8 will take it online, while grades 3-4 will test on paper. The idea is that the “field test” provides an opportunity for fifth-graders and up to gain online testing experience in a low-risk environment.

Even with technical problems hampering online testing two of the last three years, McQueen made it clear that computerized exams are the future for all Tennessee students if they want to keep pace with their peers nationally.

“Tennessee is one of less than 10 states who still have a paper test in our lower grade levels,” McQueen said during a news conference.

Local school leaders are equally committed to computerized testing, according to Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.   

“We do not want to go back to paper and pencil,” Lynch said. “Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee.”

"Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee."Dale Lynch, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents

All of the changes are in response to the series of technical issues that frequently interrupted testing this year, exasperating students and teachers and prompting an emergency state law that rendered the scores mostly inconsequential for one year.

“Teachers, students and families deserve a testing process they can have confidence in, and we are doing everything possible to meet that responsibility,” McQueen said. “We are always committed to listening and improving, and we’ll continue to do just that.”

Questar is Tennessee’s second testing company since 2016, when the state entered the era of TNReady, a new assessment aligned to new academic standards and billed as harder to game. The switch to computerized testing was part of that package.

McQueen fired North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. after its online rollout failed on the first day of testing and led to the cancellation of most state exams that year. Questar, which had come in second for the contract, was brought on as an emergency vendor for $30 million a year. Questar’s two-year contract ends in November, but McQueen wants an extension in order to complete testing for the 2018-19 school year.

The search for a new vendor — or combination of vendors — could be tricky. Only about a half dozen companies can provide online testing for a state the size of Tennessee. That’s why the state Department of Education’s invitation for companies to submit proposals will be structured so that different vendors can bid on different pieces of the work.

“What we’ve learned over time is that there are few vendors who do all of those components well, but some vendors do some pieces of it much better than others,” McQueen said. “We’re going to look for those who have a track record of success online and who we think can manage our program well.”

The state already has taken a step toward that approach. Last month, McQueen announced that Educational Testing Service, also known as ETS, will take over this year’s TNReady design work, such as devising questions and exam instructions. The change will allow Questar to focus on giving and scoring the test and verifying and reporting the results. (ETS also owns Questar. Read more here.)

The legislature’s fiscal review committee recently approved that change, including $12.5 million to pay for ETS’ services, although state officials expect the extra money will be offset by re-negotiating down the cost of Questar’s current contract.

Next Generation

Colorado adopts new science standards that focus on inquiry, not memorization

Jana Thomas watches the progress of her fourth-grade students as they learn about the effects water and land have on each other at Chamberlin Academy, an elementary school in the Harrison district. (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

New science standards adopted by a divided Colorado State Board of Education call on students to learn by puzzling through problems in the natural world rather than by listening to facts from a teacher.

The new standards, largely based on Next Generation Science Standards already in use in whole or in part in 38 states, represent the most significant change to what Colorado students will be expected to know in this round of revisions to state standards.

The State Board of Education reviews academic standards every six years. That process concluded Wednesday with the adoption of standards in comprehensive health and physical education, reading, writing and communicating, and science. The board had previously adopted new standards in social studies, math, world languages, arts, and computer science, among others. Most of those changes were considered relatively minor.

The new science standards, which were developed based on years of research into how people learn science, are considered a major change. They focus more on using scientific methods of inquiry than on memorization. In a time when we can look up literally any fact on our phones – and when scientific knowledge continues to evolve – supporters of the approach say it’s more important for students to understand how scientists reach conclusions and how to assess information for themselves than it is for them to know the periodic table by heart.

Melissa Campanella, a Denver science teacher, is already using Next Generation-based standards in her classroom. Earlier this year, she described a lesson on particle collisions as an example.

In the past, she would have given a lecture on the relevant principles, then handed her students a step-by-step lab exercise to illustrate it. Now, she starts the same lesson by activating glow sticks, one in hot water, the other in cold. Students make observations and try to figure out what might be behind the differences. Only after sharing their ideas with each other would they read about the collision model of reactions and revise their own models.

Supporters of this approach say students learn the necessary facts about science along the way and understand and retain the material better.

Critics fear that not all classroom teachers will be capable of delivering the “aha” moments and that students could miss out on critical information that would prepare them for more advanced study.

That fear was one reason all three Republican members of the state board voted no on the new standards. They also disliked the way the standards treated climate change as a real phenomenon. Nationally, the standards have drawn opposition from religious and cultural conservatives over climate change, evolution, and even the age of the earth.

Some Democratic members of the board started out as skeptics but were won over by the overwhelming support for the new standards that they heard from science teachers.

Board member Jane Goff, a Democrat who represents the northwest suburbs of Denver, said no one she talked to in her district wanted to keep the old standards.

“Most people expressed outright that they felt comfortable with the amount of resources they have (for implementation), and they were enthused about the possibilities presented here,” she said.

Under Colorado’s system of local control, school districts will continue to set their own curriculum – and that’s one point of ongoing concern even for board members who support the change. The state has very limited authority over implementation.

“If we were a state where we had more control over curriculum, some of those concerns would not be so great that students might not learn certain material,” said board chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat.