To the Editor:
As discussed in “Too Few ELL Students Land in Gifted Classes” (June 21, 2017), when it comes to identifying students for gifted programs, equity matters. It cannot be understated in terms of its importance and complexity. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor captured one layer of this issue well when she said that “the gaps in my knowledge and understanding were simply limits of class and cultural background, not lack of aptitude or application, as I feared.”
I am the project director for Project ExCEL, an initiative at George Mason University that is funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The mission of our work is to find and serve high-ability, low-income English-language learners in middle school. We use experiential problem-based learning as a universal screening platform to determine student’s preparedness for advanced classes and more challenging curriculum. Our program has made significant progress in helping teachers identify high-ability Latino students when compared with traditional methods that typically rely, in part, on ability tests.
We also have found that problem-based-learning instructional practices are effective for increasing student achievement across the board. During the first year of Project ExCEL, the achievement gap closed between ELL students and non-ELL students on problem-based-learning content tests. Achievement gaps on state standardized end-of-year assessments narrowed significantly as well for the same group of students.
With our five-year federal grant, we are seeing evidence that when teachers change their instructional practices, moving students from rote memorization to problem-based learning, talents are revealed in ELL students that educators would otherwise miss. Students should not be prevented from accessing challenging curriculum when they are up to the task. We believe there is urgency to getting more teachers to adjust their practices.
George Mason University
A version of this article appeared in the August 23, 2017 edition of Education Week as How Better to Identify Gifted ELLs