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As is often the case, there was singing going on in Room 2 of Kenwood Elementary one Friday afternoon.
Four 6-year-olds sat cross-legged around teacher Dyan Ogbe as she asked each to give their own ending to a song by saying what they’d buy with different amounts of money.
“I would buy a plane with my two dollars,” said one girl, whom Ogbe congratulated for putting together a nine-word sentence. The song was not only a chance for students to practice math skills but was also an opportunity for the young English as a Second Language learners to stretch their limited English.
A burgeoning population in Kentucky of students who are learning English combined with the adoption of more rigorous standards means efforts like Ogbe’s are ever more important. But measuring how well schools are reaching English-learners is not easy, at least not from looking at the state’s accountability data.
Strong language skills are key as part of the state’s Common Core standards. Those standards, designed to get students college and career ready, place an emphasis in part on deeper learning and communicating complex ideas – something that poses a challenge for many students whose primary language isn’t English.
“A huge goal of ours … is for students to have good control of their oral language structure so that information will strengthen their abilities to read and write,” Ogbe said. She added, “The development of oral language affects everything you do.”
Kentucky has a relatively small immigrant population, but it’s increasing more quickly than many other states. In addition to a growing Mexican population, Louisville has served as a hub for refugees, including Karen from Myanmar, Iraqis and Syrians.
The Jefferson County Public Schools, which encompass Louisville, has said the district is committed to supporting those students to help bring their reading and math achievement on par with their native English-speaking classmates. Yet it’s hard to determine from looking at the state’s testing data how successful schools have been in closing the achievement gap between these students and their peers since Common Core was implemented.
For one, the way English learners are tracked creates somewhat of a Catch-22 situation.
Unlike groups based on race or disability or other factors, English learners are, by definition, a transient group. Students who meet English proficiency standards – and are therefore more likely to do well on the state’s exams – cease to be tracked as English learners. That makes it difficult for schools to close the achievement gap for the English learner group.
“When I as a teacher – and other ESL teachers – reach these kids to a fair degree of proficiency, now their scores no longer count for us,” said Nancy Erwin, an ESL teacher at Lincoln Elementary.
In addition, the English learner group is a diverse one. For instance, the test scores of students in their first few years of learning English are put in the same category as students who are close to English proficiency. Some English learners may have had no formal education in their home countries; others in that category are U.S.-born and raised. Some English learners may exit that categorization quickly, while others may struggle to learn English after six or seven years or more.
All that makes it difficult to determine from looking at Kentucky’s accountability data whether schools and districts are doing a good job moving the needle.
“The public needs to understand it’s a very diverse group of students,” said Gary Martin with the Kentucky Department of Education.
Martin said schools around Kentucky are doing a good job of helping English learners both grasp the language and keep up academically.
A CJ/Hechinger Report analysis of JCPS’ K-PREP data over the last several years – when the state has been testing under the Common Core standards – found that the gap for English learners in elementary and middle school for reading and math has not shrunk compared to students who are not placed in one of the state’s “gap groups.” Instead, in many cases, the gap has grown slightly.
“It’s a complicated question, how to measure that achievement gap,” said Eli Beardsley, JCPS’ ESL coordinator.
But he said JCPS is working to do more to help this growing and diverse population of students.
More than a third of JCPS schools offer English as a Second Language programs. Some have dedicated ESL classes that students attend during part of their schedule; others have dual-language models, while others use push-in or pull-out supports where an English learner student is either pulled out of their regular classroom for part of the day for additional language support or an ESL teacher comes into a classroom to offer support.
In addition, JCPS has the ESL Newcomer Academy, a middle-high combined school that focuses on helping newly arrived immigrants learn English and acclimate to life in the U.S.
JCPS has earmarked an additional $1.2 million next school year for an expansion of its English as a Second Language program. In recent years, the district has also added teacher coaches at some of its schools with high English learner populations to help regular classroom teachers better reach those students.
A recent study of the academic supports that JCPS offers to limited English proficient students found that JCPS has both a financial and human capital “commitment to the support of ESL programs and students” but also said that JCPS is not giving teachers and others enough professional development to help these students.
The one-year investigation, conducted by final-year doctoral students at the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, found that academic supports to English learners varied widely from school to school.
Six out of the nine principals interviewed for the study “indicated that their teachers are ‘minimally prepared’ to meet the needs of (limited English proficient) students with whom they work.” A seventh principal responded that their teachers are “not well prepared.”
“The findings suggest that while teachers and leaders at all levels of JCPS articulate the importance of focusing on (limited English proficient) students, very few can articulate a specific vision or set goals for (their) growth,” the study noted in its recommendations. It said JCPS should “create a clear vision for the academic progress” for these students.
“There’s a real debate (across the country) whether or not Common Core is a good or bad thing for English language learners,” said Madeline Mavrogordato, an assistant professor of K-12 educational administration at Michigan State University. “There’s a front that says this is a good thing because it’s raising standards. … There’s another camp that says English language learners are going to be inherently disadvantaged because of the additional language demands built into Common Core.”
JCPS’ Beardsley said it would be “interesting to see” what the state accountability data would look like if Kentucky kept in the scores of former limited English proficient students for the first two years after they had exited that category.
In fact, that appears to be a possibility under a new federal law called the Every Student Succeeds Act. The act, which replaces No Child Left Behind, would allow a state to include former English learners in the English learner subgroup for school and district accountability purposes for up to four years.
That would allow for a more “robust view” of how the English learner population does over time, said Delia Pompa, senior fellow for education policy at the Migration Policy Institute.
But she also cautioned that it could mask somewhat the gap that English learners have.
“If I were a state and I were really caring about how my English learners were doing, I’d want to break up the data and see how they were doing year after year,” Pompa said.
The Kentucky Department of Education, under new Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, is considering how it may revamp the Bluegrass State’s accountability system under the new ESSA legislation. Pruitt has held a number of town hall meetings throughout the state to discuss how to define school success, but it’s unclear what change he may propose in the end.
ESL Newcomer principal Gwen Snow said the dual challenges of teaching students the English language and American culture while also keeping up with academic standards is often not fully shown in state accountability data or the state’s achievement gap data.
“I think they are achieving two or three times more than a lot of kids,” Snow said of Newcomer students. “We don’t measure all this other stuff. … You’re not measuring the achievement gap in content as much as you’re measuring that they don’t know English.”
Snow said she’d like to see more meaningful measures of how schools are closing the achievement gap for English learners, such as how quickly a student is able to move out of English-learner status, or finding a way to measure content knowledge without their language limitation being a factor in the score. For instance, she said she does a quick nonverbal math test with new students at her school to get a sense of where they are academically.
She said her teachers’ goal is to help students get to a level 4.0 language proficiency on the WIDA, an English proficiency assessment, as quickly as possible, saying that doing so will also help them with their academic learning. Snow said she has one team of teachers whose focus in their professional learning communities is on figuring out how to better get students to use complex sentences.
Snow said the adoption of the Common Core standards helped give her students a good common ground to ensure that all kids are getting the same basics. She said the more rigorous standards also force schools “to think about addressing (English learners’) language needs even more urgently. …. How do you get to a deep level of questioning without the language?”
Reporter Allison Ross can be reached at (502) 582-4241. Follow the Courier-Journal’s education team at Facebook.com/SchooledCJ.