Tailoring Instruction

Digital assessment helps a California
district ( SBCUSD ) to adapt to student needs.

By 2025, one in four public school students will be an English language learner. As a result, school districts and educators across the country are rising to the challenge of improving language development in their diverse, complex, and rapidly growing student populations.
In California’s San Bernardino City Unified School District (SBCUSD), 26% of K–12 students are not native English speakers, and the process of assessing their language proficiency has proved to be very challenging.

The district had nearly 14,000 English learners at all levels of English proficiency, and their teachers were not sure of each student’s language ability or how to assess it. At the beginning of each school year, English learners were required to take the state-mandated CELDT (California English Language Development Test), but teachers did not have access to the results until January or February, by which time the information was outdated and of no assistance in improving students’ academic experience.

In the fall of 2015, the SBCUSD English Learner Program team introduced a new paper-and-pencil test so that teachers could assess to their students’ language abilities at the beginning of the semester. The speaking portion had to be administered by a teacher and then, along with the written test, hand scored. This laborious process was not popular with teachers, most of whom had to evaluate one-quarter of their students each year. Moreover, with the introduction of the Common Core curriculum in 2015, English learners faced an even greater academic challenge.

“Language is embedded throughout all the content of the Common Core standards, so it’s even more critical that we know if kids are acquiring English or not,” said Ana Applegate, director of K–12 English Learner Programs, SBCUSD. “A student cannot succeed with the higher levels of Common Core without language proficiency. We’re seeing the data—Common Core is more rigorous—and we’re pulling the rug out from under English learners if we don’t deliver more effective English language instruction so that they can reach those higher levels.”

The school district needed an assessment that was simple to administer and would provide teachers with immediate data to inform decisions about their instructional approaches. SBCUSD also needed a test that was aligned with California’s 2012 ELD standards and tested the same domains as the CELDT. Ideally, the test would also be consistent with the forthcoming English Learners Proficiency Assessment for California (ELPAC) that SBCUSD piloted during the 2016–2017 school year and would begin using for all schools in the 2017–2018 school year.

The Role of Digital Technology

To help students achieve language proficiency, during the 2016–2017 school year, SBCUSD decided to conduct a digital technology assessment pilot. The district trained teachers and administrators and then successfully rolled out a technology solution called Test of English Language Learning (TELL) from Pearson in 70 schools in only five months.

Leveraging digital technology, TELL is a touchscreen-delivered language proficiency assessment for grades K–12. It takes 20–50 minutes for students to complete. English language learners (ELLs) read, write, speak, and answer questions out loud, and the technology captures their oral responses using innovative speech-recognition technology. ELLs watch highly engaging video clips and interact with pictures and words, and they are also able to write letters or words with their fingers on the screen.

Scoring is automatic, and the technology screens, diagnoses, and monitors ELL progress throughout the year. The scoring technology measures several skills with a single item, which is commonly referred to as “integrated skills” assessment. When a student watches a video clip and then describes what he saw, the digital learning and assessment solution can measure his speaking skills as well as several sub-skills, including grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and fluency.

Immediate Feedback

The use of digital technology provides educators with immediate feedback on their English learner students’ language capabilities at the beginning of the semester, which is critical. “Using digital technology, we now have a critical piece of data—in real time—that we didn’t have before. By knowing each child’s language skills for writing, reading, speaking, and listening, teachers can address areas of weakness, and we can more accurately diagnose necessary interventions. That’s just huge for our English learners,” said Applegate.

At Monterey Elementary in San Bernardino, where 70% of students are learning English as a second language, language support teacher Laura Hunt has also found the digital technology helpful in assessing her students’ language capabilities. “We were able to take the kids in, give them the test, and within 15 minutes, the teachers had their results and knew exactly where their students were.” With the help of the digital technology, reports are available in minutes, so teachers know their English learners’ proficiency levels and can make informed instructional decisions.

Moreover, these reports are available in an interactive roster format, and teachers can compare results from two assessments, see score changes, and filter by proficiency, grade, groups, classes, gender, ethnicity, and number of years in English language learning. The digital technology also makes it possible to produce multiyear aggregate reports for administrators, and parent reports are also available in English, Spanish, and Chinese.

Getting results quickly enough to change the instructional approach made a big difference in the lives of SBCUSD English learners. For example, according to Hunt, sixth-grade students are eager to be reclassified by the end of the school year, in order to make it possible for them to begin taking electives in middle school. Without the immediate feedback, that might not be possible. “We only have a limited amount of time with the kids each week. Having the scores right away meant we could focus on needed areas of improvement, so that we can prepare them to be reclassified to English proficient faster,” said Hunt.

Based on the successful pilot, SBCUSD plans to expand use of the digital technology solution for the next school year to test more proficiency levels.

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