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.”

ASD scores

In Tennessee’s turnaround district, 9 in 10 young students fall short on their first TNReady exams

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Nine out of 10 of elementary- and middle-school students in Tennessee’s turnaround district aren’t scoring on grade level in English and math, according to test score data released Thursday.

The news is unsurprising: The Achievement School District oversees 32 of the state’s lowest-performing schools. But it offers yet another piece of evidence that the turnaround initiative has fallen far short of its ambitious original goal of vaulting struggling schools to success.

Around 5,300 students in grades 3-8 in ASD schools took the new, harder state exam, TNReady, last spring. Here’s how many scored “below” or “approaching,” meaning they did not meet the state’s standards:

  • 91.8 percent of students in English language arts;
  • 91.5 percent in math;
  • 77.9 percent in science.

View scores for all ASD schools in our spreadsheet

In all cases, ASD schools’ scores fell short of state averages, which were all lower than in the past because of the new exam’s higher standards. About 66 percent of students statewide weren’t on grade level in English language arts, 62 percent weren’t on grade level in math, and 41 percent fell short in science.

ASD schools also performed slightly worse, on average, than the 15 elementary and middle schools in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, the district’s own initiative for low-performing schools. On average, about 89 percent of iZone students in 3-8 weren’t on grade level in English; 84 percent fell short of the state’s standards in math.

The last time that elementary and middle schools across the state received test scores, in 2015, ASD schools posted scores showing faster-than-average improvement. (Last year’s tests for grades 3-8 were canceled because of technical problems.)

The low scores released today suggest that the ASD’s successes with TCAP, the 2015 exam, did not carry over to the higher standards of TNReady.

But Verna Ruffin, the district’s new chief of academics, said the scores set a new bar for future growth and warned against comparing them to previous results.

“TNReady has more challenging questions and is based on a different, more rigorous set of expectations developed by Tennessee educators,” Ruffin said in a statement. “For the Achievement School District, this means that we will use this new baseline data to inform instructional practices and strategically meet the needs of our students and staff as we acknowledge the areas of strength and those areas for improvement.”

Some ASD schools broke the mold and posted some strong results. Humes Preparatory Middle School, for example, had nearly half of students meet or exceed the state’s standards in science, although only 7 percent of students in math and 12 percent in reading were on grade level.

Thursday’s score release also included individual high school level scores. View scores for individual schools throughout the state as part of our spreadsheet here.

Are Children Learning

School-by-school TNReady scores for 2017 are out now. See how your school performed

PHOTO: Zondra Williams/Shelby County Schools
Students at Wells Station Elementary School in Memphis hold a pep rally before the launch of state tests, which took place between April 17 and May 5 across Tennessee.

Nearly six months after Tennessee students sat down for their end-of-year exams, all of the scores are now out. State officials released the final installment Thursday, offering up detailed information about scores for each school in the state.

Only about a third of students met the state’s English standards, and performance in math was not much better, according to scores released in August.

The new data illuminates how each school fared in the ongoing shift to higher standards. Statewide, scores for students in grades 3-8, the first since last year’s TNReady exam was canceled amid technical difficulties, were lower than in the past. Scores also remained low in the second year of high school tests.

“These results show us both where we can learn from schools that are excelling and where we have specific schools or student groups that need better support to help them achieve success – so they graduate from high school with the ability to choose their path in life,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Did some schools prepare teachers and students better for the new state standards, which are similar to the Common Core? Was Memphis’s score drop distributed evenly across the city’s schools? We’ll be looking at the data today to try to answer those questions.

Check out all of the scores in our spreadsheet or on the state website and add your questions and insights in the comments.