Special Report
English-Language Learners

Screening Students Proves to Be Crucial

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 31, 2008 8 min read
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On the day before Lexus Barak Garcia is to start 8th grade in Gwinnett County, Ga., the 12-year-old takes part in a rite of passage shared by English-language learners nationwide: a screening test for students whose parents have said they speak a language other than English at home.

Lexus is a U.S. citizen born in New York City whose native language is Spanish. When he was 2 years old, his mother, Mercedes Garcia, took him to the Dominican Republic, where he lived until coming back last year to live with relatives.

Now, at his suburban Atlanta school district’s central testing center for international students, Lexus is given an English-language-proficiency test created by a consortium of states, along with a math test developed by Gwinnett County’s educators. He also is asked to write a couple of paragraphs in Spanish.

The 158,000-student district—which enrolls more than 18,000 ELLs—has become increasingly more systematic in how it assesses and places English-language learners and when it decides such students should leave special programs.

That change takes into account demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and is typical among school districts in the 19 states that are members of the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment Consortium, says Timothy Boals, WIDA’s executive director.

Under NCLB, states were for the first time required to develop a comprehensive English-language-proficiency test that could measure annually what progress ELLs make in listening, speaking, reading, and writing English.

“What you found commonly before NCLB was that, in a lot of states, you could use any English-proficiency assessment you wanted and write your own policy about when kids went into programs, got out of programs, and how long they stayed,” says Boals. “There was very little uniformity then.”

Not so anymore.

Now all states have adopted an English-proficiency test of some kind that their districts are required to use to measure progress in English, but some states still let school districts determine when students should leave programs.

Some WIDA consortium states go further: Boals says most members recommend or require that school districts use a certain composite score on the English-language-proficiency test, known as access for ELLs, to determine when students should leave programs.

Identifying English-Language Learners

The EPE Research Center asked the states to describe the criteria used to identify students for ELL services for the 2008-09 school year. Every state and the District of Columbia cited an English-language-proficiency (ELP) assessment as a screening device, with nearly all states also reporting a home-language survey. Seventeen states permit the use of at least three different ELL-identification criteria, which may also include interviews with parents or students, evaluations by teachers, and consideration of grades or other aspects of a student’s educational background.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2009

Choosing that cutoff point is a tricky matter, however. Most states choose a score at which WIDA researchers have determined that English is no longer an obstacle for students taking regular state math and reading tests. Presumably at that point, a lack of English is no longer a hindrance to doing well in mainstream classes either, Boals says—though he notes WIDA has only anecdotal evidence to support that conclusion.

He adds: “Hopefully, the states are writing the rules so there is some flexibility for professional judgment” on when a student should leave programs.

Leeway Urged

Georgia requires that all school districts use the same initial English-proficiency screening test and the same English-proficiency test to measure progress along the way. The state has set a guideline that students be redesignated as proficient in English and stop receiving special help to learn the language if they score a 5 out of 6 levels on WIDA’s English-language-proficiency test.

Educators such as Beth Arnow, the director of ELL programs for a decade in Gwinnett County schools, appreciate how educators on the ground in Georgia still have a say on what classes students should land in.

And at the district’s Norcross High School, some teachers say they don’t bother to look at the test results for either English proficiency or math for the ELLs they teach, though they can easily pull the test results up on their laptops from a central database. These teachers find it more practical to gauge for themselves where the students stand academically and where they need extra help.

“I have to work with what I have,” says Glenda Young, referring to her integrated-math course for ELLs, which includes algebra and geometry but is the lowest-level math class offered at the high school. “According to the curriculum, there’s nowhere else” for them to be placed.

Young is, in fact, attentive to students’ education gaps. On a recent fall day, for example, she spent about 15 minutes working one-on-one with a newcomer from Mexico who had very poor math skills. She gave him step-by-step instructions, while simultaneously checking homework problems brought to her by the rest of the class.

Other teachers find it useful to review the test results for individual ELL students, saying that data can help pinpoint students’ academic weaknesses and strengths, particularly in English.

“If I get a student who doesn’t talk and does well on everything else, then I think, ‘I need to check there,’ ” says Lacie Hubler, explaining how she uses the database for former ELLs in her mainstream English classes.

Norcross High has divided the lowest level English-as-a-second-language classes into two more nuanced levels. But while students may be at a similar level in their English skills, the variance in educational background among students in the two classes is still great, showing that English-language learners do not fit easily into academic groupings.

Megan Burns and Amy Gallois co-teach one of those classes for a double period every day. Most of their ESL students came to the United States only weeks or months before they started the school year in mid-August. After their initial screening at Gwinnett County’s central testing center for international students, these English-learners were given additional diagnostic tests at Norcross.

Grendy Perez, 17, from Guatemala, is the student in the class who has perhaps the farthest distance to go to become literate in English. She couldn’t read and write in Spanish when she arrived at the beginning of the 2007-08 school year, and she had repeated the 3rd grade years ago in Guatemala before she dropped out of school, according to Burns.

Grendy is taking the semester-long lowest-level ESL class for the third time. A volunteer who had formerly taught elementary school worked with her for two periods a week on phonics all last school year. But Burns says Grendy still struggles to match sounds with letters. Burns has started to take notes on her progress that could be used to make the case for Grendy to be evaluated for special education services.

Still, the youth has acquired some oral English. When her teacher asks, “Where’s your book?,” Grendy answers, as any teenager might in an American school, “In my locker.”

Emilio Mujica, 17, is a fellow student with much more formal schooling. He arrived about a month before the start of the school year from Mexico. Though one of the ESL teachers confirmed that Emilio was tested in English-language proficiency, he recalls taking only a math test and providing a writing sample in Spanish. He said he didn’t know any English when he came. For two decades, his father has worked in construction in Georgia, and Emilio says in Spanish that he decided to join him “to improve my life.”

Aiming for Progress

Burns sees Emilio making good progress in her class. Emilio says he finished 9th grade in his country, which included the study of algebra, and is hoping he can do well enough to take a higher-level ESL class next school year.

The school district aims to move students who are just starting to learn English by two testing levels their first school year and by at least one English-proficiency level each year after that, according to Arnow. And last school year, the district reclassified 2,322—or about 10 percent—of its ELLs as proficient in English and no longer in need of services, though the students are still monitored for two additional years.

Emily Park, a 16-year-old from South Korea who is taking only mainstream classes this school year, moved to the United States and enrolled in Norcross High a year and a half ago. Her parents had lost their jobs and were poor, so they sent her and her younger sister to live with a Korean family in the United States in the hope that she would have better opportunities. Emily had acquired some English in Korea, so she didn’t start out as a beginner in ESL classes. By the end of the school year, she had moved up at least two levels on the state’s English-language-proficiency test.

Emily went to her guidance counselor and told her she wanted to stop taking ESL classes. She recalls that she told the guidance counselor: “The [ESL] teachers are all very nice. I want advantages in my class. I want to learn more English with original American people.”

She received support from teachers in making that change.

“I felt she needed more of a challenge,” says Amy Crisp, who was one of Emily’s ESL teachers last school year and who encouraged Emily to move to mainstream classes. Students can also move out of ESL classes if their parents insist on it, although few parents do.

A student’s English-proficiency level can have implications for the curriculum that a student follows.

Emilio, for example, has been placed in only English and math classes, besides gym. In addition to Young’s integrated math class for ELLs, Emilio spends a period in a math class that is intended to support him and five other newly arrived Spanish-speaking youths. The teenagers eagerly listen to and watch their teacher explain problems on the board in English and translate for each other into Spanish what they understand.

By contrast, in Emily’s first year of being redesignated as a regular, non-ESL student, she is taking French 1, honors Algebra 2, honors world history, sophomore English, and honors chemistry.

Norcross High does have courses that provide ELLs with core content other than math and English once they move beyond the lowest level of ESL. Emily took biology for ELLs, for instance, while she was a higher-level ESL student.

But, in broad strokes, the kind of classes a student is assigned to in Gwinnett County depends a great deal on the student’s English-proficiency level. And that is determined with a standardized English-proficiency test.

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