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Keeping the spotlight on English learners

How English-language learners are depicted in the news reflects how they’re seen and treated in schools

7 min read


English-language learner

Ben Mullins/Unsplash

Two years ago, I wrote an article for The Grade on how to improve coverage of English-language learners

In it, I recommended more accurate representation of ELLs and complained about misleading stories on “bogus EL/non-EL achievement gaps.” 

Much in that piece still applies. 

The biggest issue in covering ELLs is how well they’re doing, whether they are becoming proficient and how their academic performance stacks up when they exit ELL status. Unfortunately, assessment results for these students continue to be misinterpreted, and too little attention is paid to former ELLs and their performance on assessments.

However, we’ve also seen some key developments. I’m encouraged by the attention paid to ELLs but dismayed when it’s for the wrong reasons.

How ELLs are depicted in the news reflects how they’re treated in schools and, to some degree, influences how educators and the public perceive them. 

Here are more tips on how to think and write about ELL achievement:

Interpret test results with care

Assessment results for ELLs were often misinterpreted before the pandemic, and that unfortunate pattern continues.

A November 2021 Washington Post story on a teacher preparation program noted “multilingual learners are also the lowest-performing group based on graduation rates and tests, according to government reports, making the need for effective English as a Second Language teachers greater than ever.”

This story overlooked the most important fact to understand about performance tests and English learners. ELL status isn’t static. As students reach proficiency, they no longer are in this category and are replaced by new students who are, of course, not yet proficient in English, by definition. As a result, the gap will never go away. When states like Colorado look at the test performance of former ELLs, often no such gap exists. In some cases, achievement of former ELLs exceeds that of non-ELLs. 

There are better ways to explain this to readers.

For example, this Chalkbeat Colorado story from December 2020 also notes the gap between ELLs and non-ELLs on language arts tests but helpfully points out one reason could be “the test is given in English, which, by definition, language learners don’t yet understand.”

Another method is to note any changes in the gaps. This Chalkbeat story from last spring references a School District of Philadelphia report that showed students learning English saw slightly smaller declines than their peers on a math and reading assessment comparing winter to fall 2020.

Even then, a change in the assessment gap between English learners and their peers might not have anything to do with achievement. Because the pandemic affected attendance and immigration to the US, the ELLs who took the assessments might have been a more (or less) English-proficient group than those who preceded them. Chalkbeat stories from Indiana and Colorado touched on this explanation as well as on other reasons ELLs’ performance might have increased or decreased relative to non-ELLs during the pandemic. 

Use a better metric (like WIDA)

Instead of reporting on gaps between ELLs and non-ELLs on general ELA and math assessments, which almost always mean far less than they appear to, I’d like to see more pieces like this November Education Week story about ELLs’ progress. It’s accurately headlined “The Complicated Picture of English-Language Learners’ Progress During the Pandemic.” 

It’s unusually helpful because it reports on results from the WIDA, an English language proficiency assessment administered to ELLs in over 35 states. All states, even non-WIDA states, are required to assess their ELLs every year and determine whether they’ve made adequate growth. This information is found on most states’ report card websites

This is a valid way to assess progress of ELLs in a school or district. ELLs also take the general math and ELA tests administered to all students — probably why this information appears more often in stories. 

Noting how an individual English learner does from year to year on these math and ELA tests is useful information. What’s publicly available and less helpful, however, is aggregate data on the performance of the ever-changing ELL group. 

In contrast, this article on a small school district in Minnesota gave an accurate take on ELL progress by reporting how many students achieved English proficiency and exited ELL status during the pandemic. The particularly astute administrator quoted in the story noted the number of students in the district who achieved this in the 2020-21 school year was “lower than what we normally see.” Still, it was “worth celebrating that students were making enough progress to exit the program, even in spite of COVID disruptions.” 

This Detroit Free Press story also accurately reported ELLs’ progress toward proficiency. It noted Michigan ELLs demonstrated average or above-average growth on the WIDA test, about the same as before the pandemic, but a lower percentage of students scored proficient or higher than in 2019. Even better, it pointed out major caveats for the results; for example, that fewer ELLs may have taken the assessments to begin with. This is valuable context.

Use data to explore new assessment angles

I’d love to see more stories that include English learners as part of the story, not completely separate from their peers.

This Hechinger Report piece does an excellent job of describing the reading challenges first graders at Doss Elementary in Texas faced after the pandemic disrupted their kindergarten year. It fails, however, to mention challenges faced by those who aren’t yet proficient in English, who make up 17% of the students at this school, according to Texas report card data. 

In response to my emailed question, the reporter said she didn’t dive into it because the teacher interviewed didn’t discuss this as a concern. Fair enough, but the fact that teachers in a school with this many ELLs didn’t mention it is worth investigating, too.

ELLs are a remarkably diverse population. That’s why it’s worth covering some ELL subgroups that are routinely overlooked, especially those who have achieved English proficiency and exited the ELL group.

Unfortunately, not every state tracks these students, but Oregon, Washington, California, New York and Illinois do. The results are interesting as well as encouraging, similar to the Colorado data referenced earlier.  

Other students who are easy to forget are transient students. This story from Ohio did a good job of highlighting challenges smaller districts face when serving ELLs who also come and go. 

Explore the experiences of a new wave of students

This fall brought many articles about an “influx” of Afghan refugee families into some communities. Well … what happened? I’d like to see more follow-up like this story from Omaha: an insightful look at how Afghan refugee children are being served in Nebraska schools. 

ELLs, like all student groups, need to be covered with nuance. Report on their growth, their setbacks, the time it’s taking them to reach proficiency and their achievement after exiting ELL status. That’s real news. Talking about the ELL/non-ELL test performance gap is not.

Barbara Gottschalk is an ESL teacher and author of Dispelling Misconceptions About ELLs and Get Money for Your Classroom. You can reach her on Twitter.

This piece was produced in partnership with The Grade, an independent effort to help improve education journalism. Sign up for The Grade’s Best Education Journalism Of The Week” email or follow The Grade on Twitter.


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