Supporting the needs of English learners (ELs) is highly complex and diverse—as diverse as the young people in our schools who are working hard to build their English language skills and proficiency.
While there are 4.8 million U.S. public school students classified as EL (9.6% of the total public school population), there continues to be a significant opportunity and achievement gap between EL students and non-EL students. According to the 2019 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), there is a 33 point differential in fourth-grade reading proficiency when comparing ELs to non-ELs, and only 10% of fourth grade and 4% of eighth grade ELs are at or above proficiency in reading compared to 39% and 36% for native English speakers.
The EL designation is one that is intended to be temporary. The goal is to help ELs reach English proficiency through targeted supports and then remove the EL label. But with ELs speaking more than 400 languages and representing numerous cultures, ethnicities, and nationalities, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to helping English learners develop their language and academic skills. However, utilizing a comprehensive, data-driven multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) with assessment as the cornerstone helps educators be adaptive and responsive to the needs of ELs and move them toward language proficiency as quickly as possible.
Regardless of whether you have just a few ELs in your school or 80% of your students are ELs, having the appropriate assessments to identify needs and monitor progress toward learning goals is an essential component of the MTSS process. Just like instruction and intervention are tiered in a MTSS, so are assessments.
Putting Assessment Data into Perspective
Before undertaking assessments with ELs it’s necessary to understand their backgrounds and current situation. For instance, what is the educational and language history of the student? Are they a newcomer or have they been receiving supports for some time? Do they have good foundational skills in their native language? And if they were in your school the previous year, what level of risk did the entire grade inherit? All of these things should be considered when choosing assessments and then reviewing data. Using standardized assessments allows us to make comparisons with other students but with ELs, those comparisons need to be made through the lens of their unique linguistic and educational background.
Universal screening reveals the effectiveness of core instruction for all students and answers the question “what level of risk did the entire grade inherit?”
Including ELs in universal screening is important, especially if you have more than one or two ELs. Universal screening reveals the effectiveness of core instruction for all students and answers the question “what level of risk did the entire grade inherit?” If a whole grade is below benchmark in phonics or fractions, that can be addressed in Tier 1 instruction for ELs—with specific supports—and their peers.
Universal screening will also reveal which students need additional intervention beyond Tier 1 instruction. ELs, particularly newcomers, will likely fall below benchmarks so keep in mind a student’s language and educational history when reviewing diagnostic assessment to help determine whether the gaps are a result of not having the academic language to understand instruction, a lack of foundational knowledge—such as phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, math calculations, applied math skills, and early math skills— or a specific learning disability (SLD) that exists in the student’s native language as well. Students with a SLD should be referred to special education services but if academic and foundational skills are the cause then general education instruction and intervention will provide the support needed to close gaps.
Based on the results of diagnostic assessments, educators can determine what types of supports are needed to address the challenges. Progress monitoring assessments will show if the prescribed interventions are having the desired effect or if the approach needs to be adjusted to get better results. When ELs aren’t making the expected progress the first course of action should be to change the approach rather than immediately inferring that there’s an intrinsic neurological problem. It typically takes seven to nine years for ELs to reach Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). Building skills—whether they’re academic skills or learning to dance, drive, or play an instrument—takes time. We start out slow and inaccurate and over time develop fluency and automaticity. Administering brief, timed progress monitoring assessments frequently will capture not only if students are becoming more accurate but also more automatic.
Preventing Unnecessary Special Education Referrals
Having strong core instruction, support specific to ELs, and Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports that are all aligned is generally sufficient to address the needs of ELs and eventually move them out of the EL designation. This type of MTSS infrastructure can decrease overrepresentation of ELs in special education services. As ELs progress in their conversational English, a frequent occurrence is to make assumptions that comprehension or applied math issues are no longer a result of language deficits, leading to unnecessary referrals to special education. Interpersonal conversational skills are not indicative of CALP so educators must continue to review progress monitoring data through the lens of each students’ unique experience and put comparisons into perspective.
Ensuring Success for English Learners
With the right supports, many multilingual learners will outperform their native English speaking peers. Recognizing the special talents of ELs and using assessment data to guide and monitor interventions will help to close opportunity gaps for ELs. To learn more about the role of assessment in supporting ELs within MTSS, tune in to the on-demand webinar, Support English Learners by Understanding and Using Assessments featuring Dr. Alejandra Estrada-Burt and Dr. Seth Aldrich.