What’s Behind the Good News? Who Knows?

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 24, 2008 2 min read
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I came across a story via and TESOL in the News about how the scores of English-language learners in a Colorado school district on the state’s English-language-proficiency test improved significantly this school year over the previous one. This is the second year that Colorado schools have administered the Colorado English Language Assessment test, or CELA.

While reading the article, I recalled reading an article about improved test scores of ELLs on Oregon’s English-language-proficiency test that spurred a lot of discussion last month over at the ELL Advocates blog. In that story Oregon educators were quoted as saying that teaching grammar more deliberately helped to improve test scores. Some people who read that article didn’t buy it. (See my post, “Teaching Grammar to Oregon ELLs.”)

The April 22 story by The Tribune, a local newspaper in northern Colorado, quotes an elementary school teacher, Judith Morales, in the Greeley, Colo., district (formally called Weld County School District 6 but referred to locally as the Greeley-Evans School District 6)) as crediting the district’s new literacy program with improving English-proficiency test scores. The CELA test was taken by 3,600 ELLs from the district in January.

As was true with the article about Oregon, I couldn’t glean enough from the piece about the Colorado district to understand why the scores might have improved.

So I called up Anne Ramirez, the English-language-acquisition coordinator for that district. She agreed that a number of factors could have influenced the increase in test scores. Overall, she believes that the implementation of a district plan last school year to improve the literacy of ELLs and all students has been the biggest influence. The district made changes in ELL instruction. For example, the teachers now introduce reading to ELLs at the elementary school level at the same time they also are helping them to develop oral proficiency in English. Previously teachers were expected to wait until ELLs reached a certain level of oral English proficiency before they introduced reading. At the high school level, the district doubled the amount of time from one to two periods per day that ELLs at the beginning levels of proficiency spend learning oral English and literacy skills. Ms. Ramirez said the district has also improved coordination among all teachers in various ways so that the curriculum that ELLs receive is aligned with the curriculum all students get.

Ms. Ramirez acknowledged that factors about the test itself could have boosted students’ test scores. Some test questions are the same from year to year, so students could get some repeat questions. She said that the CELA also changed from last year to this year, in that some questions were replaced with others that more closely aligned with Colorado standards. It’s possible, she acknowledged, that this year’s CELA was easier than last year’s CELA.

One interesting fact about the district in Greeley, Colo., is that 91 percent of its ELLs were born in the United States.

I’m not trying to rain on the Colorado district’s parade. I’m just pointing out that determining why students’ test scores increase or decrease from one year to the next is not easy to pin down.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.