College & Workforce Readiness

College Board Puts Spotlight on Needs of ELLs, New Kinds of Tests

By Catherine Gewertz — October 24, 2012 6 min read
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The annual meeting of the College Board got off to an unusual start: with a high-profile session on English-learners’ “right to rigor,” moderated by none other than the organization’s brand-new president, David Coleman.

The session, a panel discussion by three nationally known ELL experts, sent a bevy of potent signals to the field about the organization’s priorities as new leadership takes hold. Not only do these priorities come straight from the top—as symbolized by Coleman’s presence on the dais—but they feature a big shift in thinking about how to teach students who are learning English. (Video of the session is here.)

Coleman, widely known as the chief architect of the common standards in English/language arts, made it clear that the central place of “complex text” in those standards extends to English-learners. As many teachers already know—but too many still don’t embody in their teaching—students learning English can be robbed of opportunities to grow when they are given watered-down texts in response to their still-developing English-language skills.

While the impulse to shift text complexity downward to meet students is understandable, Coleman said, he urged educators instead to teach deep, interesting, complex texts to their English-learners and meet them there with “artful scaffolding.” He cast it as a civil rights issue, saying that “once the quality of texts shifts downward, there is no way out” for students, who are then trapped in lower levels of learning and can’t catch up to their English-speaking peers.

He solicited the thoughts of Stanford professors Kenji Hakuta and Guadalupe Valdes, and UC-Berkeley professor Lily Wong Fillmore about the best ways to ensure that English-learners have the same access to the demands of the Common Core State Standards as do their native English-speaking peers. Their discussion ranged from handling complex text to plumbing the reasons why English-learners—along with low-income students and racial and ethnic minorities—often don’t pursue academic challenges they are qualified to handle, and don’t apply to or enroll in college as often as other students do.

Fillmore, a widely respected scholar on ELL issues, noted the importance of providing teachers training to teach the more complex texts to English-learners. The students, she said, can handle it.

"[ELL] children are well equipped to deal with complexity as long as teachers are given some of the training it takes to work with complex texts,” she said.

Scaffolding is particularly challenging because it has to take into account the gaps in cultural and historical knowledge that students learning English can stumble over in the texts they are reading, said Valdes.

She told a story of a 10th grade student who had immigrated from Honduras only 18 months earlier and was asked to write an essay about equality based on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have A Dream” speech and a quote from television talk-show host Jon Stewart that suggested there were no longer any racial or ethnic barriers to freedom in the United States. Valdes said it was impossible for this boy to navigate all the historical references and cultural allusions in those readings in order to write that essay; When she spoke to him after class, he said he thought Martin Luther King Jr. was British. So as teachers undertake the “complex text” demands of the common core, they must be trained to understand and deal with not just linguistic complexities in text, but cultural, historic, and other kinds of complexities there as well, she said.

The question of “undermatch” in college selection—what Coleman described as a “preoccupation” of this annual meeting—offered a glimpse of yet another area of complexity. He asked the experts what could be done about the phenomenon of students—particularly English-learners and Latinas—not attending college or choosing colleges that are far less selective than what they can handle.

Instead of a response about how to get students to choose more challenging colleges, however, Coleman got an earful from Fillmore about all the powerful and nuanced family dynamics that go into Latinas’ college choices, and why undermatching “might not be so bad” in many cases. Not going to college at all is one thing, she said, but choosing a college that is less demanding than a student is qualified for could be a suitable and appropriate solution to a host of social and cultural factors, she said.

She spoke of a California student named Carolina, who had immigrated from the Mexican state of Michoacan as a toddler and had done well in school. She applied to a state university near her home, but chose to go farther away, to UC-Berkeley, because of its reputation and the scholarship it offered her, Fillmore said. But she struggled with little support, felt out of place, and missed her family. “It was as if she walked into a totally different world,” Fillmore said, and she left after a year.

Less than two weeks into Coleman’s tenure at the College Board, and undermatching—an area of special focus for the College Board, with new research about to be released—is put on display as a highly layered problem inclined to elude an easy solution.

Coleman asked the panel what the College Board can do to advance rigor for English-learners. Fillmore suggested using College Board data to highlight the districts that do well with those student groups. And she urged educators not to shortchange counseling as a powerful tool to help English-learners learn about and prepare for their future choices.

“Every student I’ve worked with has failed to get the kind of counseling early enough to make a difference” in their college trajectory, she said.

Hakuta urged the College Board to advance the view that bilingualism is a key 21st-century skill. Valdes urged Coleman to “rethink the SAT” so that it doesn’t “overprivilege language.” That doesn’t just mean the ability to speak English fluently, she noted; it means being highly articulate. Some of the most brilliant people, who solve some of society’s most pressing problems, she said, aren’t the most articulate, and their skills—creative skills, hands-on skills—have to be recognized as crucial and tested as such. Tests need tasks that measure the strengths of “geeky students who don’t talk well at all,” Valdes said.

One of the most potent messages of the session was sent in response to audience questions. One teacher expressed worry about whether teachers would be evaluated for “teaching Latin or for teaching students.” Without addressing how teachers should be judged, Coleman responded by discussing what tests should be. Assessment makers, he said, should design them as “work worth doing.”

“You should hold us accountable for making assessments worthy of you and your best work,” he told the teacher. He added that under his tenure, the College Board would be “hostile” to tests that fall short of this mark, tests that don’t support “authentic learning.”

I heard someone behind me say, for the second time during the session: “Wow.”

It was a California teacher who conducts professional development for the staff at her school. She said she has been to many College Board forums, but has never heard such a high priority—and high profile—placed on English-learners, or heard assessment framed in the way Coleman had done.

“I’m thrilled,” she said. “I’m really encouraged.”

Photo: College Board President David Coleman poses for a portrait last month in New York. (Michael Nagle/College Board)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.