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Teacher Education

Assessing English Learners and Struggling Readers and Writers: What Size Are You?

By Gail Verdi

Meetings: Listening to the Experts

This year thanks to my work with NJTESOL/NJBE (and BJ Franks, past president of the organization), I have attended two meetings which focused on the work being done by the two Race-to-the-Top Assessment Consortia: PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC).   On June 30, I sat in on the NJ Commissioner’s Meeting with Higher Education at Mercer County Community College, and on August 10, I traveled to Washington, DC with Dr. Gilda Del Risco (Kean University) to the USDOE’s Public Meeting on Creating Valid, Reliable, and Fair Assessments for Students with Disabilities and English Learners.  

At the June meeting, Allison Jones, Senior Fellow for Postsecondary Engagement at http://www.achieve.org/ , discussed the benefits and advances of the Common Core Standards (CCS) in English Language Arts and Math, and their implications for New Jersey.  One major initiative of the CCS is to align high school standards with college requirements based on general education courses in reading/writing/math.  The sentiment behind this goal is admirable,  and we all want students to be ready for college course work, but as BJ Franks noted in an email exchange we had in June, “What about students that arrive here from other countries as teenagers and don’t have the language skills to meet standards in college math in English?” The argument is being made that there is a correlation between the large percentage of students needing remediation in the first year of college (28% across the U.S.) and the small percentage of students that actually earn a four-year degree (22 out of every 100 students in New Jersey). 

At the Public Meeting on Creating Valid, Reliable and Fair Assessments for Students with Disabilities and English Learners, a group of experts met at the U.S. Department of Education to discuss adaptive assessments that will provide a snapshot of a student’s content knowledge and language skills.  These computer-based assessment systems will be able to determine a student’s language proficiency and content knowledge and determine appropriate test items to assist teachers in developing a plan to assist in moving that student towards readiness.  These adaptive assessments will be given several times a year. The panel presenters included Jamal Abedi (University of California), Rebecca Kopriva (Wisconsin Center for Education Research). and Guillermo Solano-Florez (University of Colorado) who were advocating for ELs and Lizanne DeStefano (University of Illinois) spoke on behalf of students with disabilities.  Michael Russell (VP Innovation for Measured Progress) discussed the value of using computer programs that assess both the language and content knowledge of students to determine where students are on a continuum of a growth model- what accommodations need to be made to help students meet outcomes.  Drs. Abedi, Solano-Florez, and Kopriva presented compelling research findings that helped support the argument that in order to construct valid, reliable, and fair assessments for English Learners, this population must be included in the pilot testing to ensure that the tests are constructed properly. 

Back on Campus with Teachers

Sometimes when I talk to teachers in my classes, it sounds as if they spend most of their time either preparing for tests or administering them. I think we would all agree that when schools design curricula around testing, this encourages shallow teaching and learning.   At the same time, I recognize that teachers are fighting against this approach through subversive (thoughtful) activities such as the Literacy Club my colleague Monica Schnee has organized for parents and children in River Edge, NJ.  Through her work with ESL students and their parents, she encourages reading and writing for authentic purposes. Therefore, I want to emphasize here that classroom teachers are the true experts when it comes to understanding how the overemphasis of testing discourages students from becoming lifelong readers, writers, and critical thinkers.  Teachers are also the source for stopping this from happening.  Hence, my question “What Size Are You ?” which requires that we reflect on how much we allow testing to impact our teaching. 

Recently, I used two readings in my Language Arts and Content course to explore, along with my graduate students, the impact testing has on literacy development:  Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It (Gallagher, 2009) and ELL Assessment: One Size Does Not Fit All (Plank, 2011).  I asked my students to read “The Elephant in the Room,” the first chapter of Gallagher’s text, and to respond by completing a double entry journal.  Gallagher argues that requiring teachers to cover staggering amounts of content (based on standards) discourages them to teach anything in depth.  She describes her own experience as a classroom teacher:

Officially, I am not a social studies teacher, but a state standard requires that my twelfth-grade English students write historical research papers.  Last year, the topic was 9/11, and it took six weeks of teaching before my students understood the historical underpinnings and significance of that single day in history. (p. 10.)
For those of us who have taught academic ESL or content in an L2, we know that we have to provide students with multiple approaches to acquiring the language functions necessary to help them internalize content.  We can’t just lecture or deposit information and expect our students to withdraw it when tests are administered.   As Plank asserts, “We need accurate information about English-language learners’ knowledge and skills.” Here are some of my students’ responses:

AC responded to Gallagher’s argument that schools focusing on test preparation reading are maintaining “apartheid schools.”  “This reminded me of a book I read by Jonathan Kozol.  It is called The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America… Students that failed a test were no longer given recess… The constant drilling and emphasis on standardized tests deters students from learning.”  In other words rather than lifting up struggling readers, they ensure that struggling readers will continue to struggle. 
EH reflected on the role the government plays in the reproduction of practices that keep struggling readers from developing reading skills for real purposes, “The author is taking the stand that too much pressure is being put on schools so that they emphasize the wrong aspects of education with their students.  I feel that it is the governmental officials that have created the no-win paradox.” 

I am fortunate to be able to work with students like AC and EH who are able think critically about issues of assessment.  Like Gallagher and Plank, these graduate student-practitioners are asking us to answer a very important question:  What size are you when it comes to valuing reading and writing?  How do we get content teachers to recognize that they are also teaching language?  How do we get teachers to recognize “apartheid practices,” and work towards providing English learners with multiple ways of engaging with language and content?  How can we develop assessments that are relevant in relation to L2 students and struggling readers?  Perhaps those experts working with PARCC and SMARTER Balance will get it right this time, but I have yet to see the results of all these discussions.

Gallager, K. (2009).  Readicide: How schools are killing reading and what you can do about it.  Portland, ME. Stenhouse Publishers.
Plank, D. (2011). ELL assessment: One size does not fit all.  Education Week, 31(2), 20.

Post-Script

In September, I went to a meeting focusing on the new standards being developed by the National Council on Teacher Quality, www.nctq.org, that will be used to determine the impact teacher education programs have on students in the classroom. These standards are not presently (as far as I know) part of the NCATE accreditation process.  What impact will these new assessment protocols have on our schools of education?  Will they help us strengthen our program? Is there a hidden agenda related to these “new” standards?  Perhaps this should be a topic for our Teacher Education SIG meeting in May 2011.  I look forward to any responses.

2012 Spring Conference Call for Proposals and Poster Sessions

Please consider submitting a proposal for a workshop focusing on issues in Teacher Education.  We are also looking for poster sessions that represent all the SIG groups and Proposals for the Graduate Student Forum for our Spring 2012 Conference.  Go to the NJTESOL/NJBE home page to find out more information on deadlines and submission criteria: www.njtesol-njbe.org.

Gail Verdi is the Teacher Education SIG Representative.  You can contact her at
gverdi@njtesol-njbe.org  or at 908-737-3908 if you have a program or an initiative
you would like her to feature in Voices.