« ELLs in Minnesota Face Fears About a Writing Test | Main | With NCLB, One Size Fits All--Or Does It Really? »

What's Behind the Good News? Who Knows?


I came across a story via hispanictips.com and TESOL in the News about how the scores of English-language learners in a Colorado school district on the state's English-language-proficiency test improved significantly this school year over the previous one. This is the second year that Colorado schools have administered the Colorado English Language Assessment test, or CELA.

While reading the article, I recalled reading an article about improved test scores of ELLs on Oregon's English-language-proficiency test that spurred a lot of discussion last month over at the ELL Advocates blog. In that story Oregon educators were quoted as saying that teaching grammar more deliberately helped to improve test scores. Some people who read that article didn't buy it. (See my post, "Teaching Grammar to Oregon ELLs.")

The April 22 story by The Tribune, a local newspaper in northern Colorado, quotes an elementary school teacher, Judith Morales, in the Greeley, Colo., district (formally called Weld County School District 6 but referred to locally as the Greeley-Evans School District 6)) as crediting the district's new literacy program with improving English-proficiency test scores. The CELA test was taken by 3,600 ELLs from the district in January.

As was true with the article about Oregon, I couldn't glean enough from the piece about the Colorado district to understand why the scores might have improved.

So I called up Anne Ramirez, the English-language-acquisition coordinator for that district. She agreed that a number of factors could have influenced the increase in test scores. Overall, she believes that the implementation of a district plan last school year to improve the literacy of ELLs and all students has been the biggest influence. The district made changes in ELL instruction. For example, the teachers now introduce reading to ELLs at the elementary school level at the same time they also are helping them to develop oral proficiency in English. Previously teachers were expected to wait until ELLs reached a certain level of oral English proficiency before they introduced reading. At the high school level, the district doubled the amount of time from one to two periods per day that ELLs at the beginning levels of proficiency spend learning oral English and literacy skills. Ms. Ramirez said the district has also improved coordination among all teachers in various ways so that the curriculum that ELLs receive is aligned with the curriculum all students get.

Ms. Ramirez acknowledged that factors about the test itself could have boosted students' test scores. Some test questions are the same from year to year, so students could get some repeat questions. She said that the CELA also changed from last year to this year, in that some questions were replaced with others that more closely aligned with Colorado standards. It's possible, she acknowledged, that this year's CELA was easier than last year's CELA.

One interesting fact about the district in Greeley, Colo., is that 91 percent of its ELLs were born in the United States.

I'm not trying to rain on the Colorado district's parade. I'm just pointing out that determining why students' test scores increase or decrease from one year to the next is not easy to pin down.


The most eye opening fact in the evaluation of reasons for an increase in Colorado ELL student CELA test scores is the identification of 91 percent of these students as 'born in the United States'.

As study after study shows, ELLs can best be categorized based on learner characteristics linked to literacy versus linguistic needs. ELLs born in the U.S., also known as long term ELLs speak English fluently and have difficulty with reading comprehension. As the numbers of these students has grown as a proportion of all ELLs over the past 20 years, a focus on reading and literacy has been shown to improve test scores.

The difficulties of ELLs has been exacerbated by inappropriate placement of all ELLs in one classroom, precluding differentiated instruction based on learning needs. Teachers focus on oral language proficiency, which is appropriate for most newly arrived immigrants. This focus, however, not only doesn't meet the needs of long term ELLs, it fossilizes language learning for students whose literacy languishes and causes unnecessary management issues in the 'combined' classroom. The popularity of bilingual instruction has also had a negative impact on long term ELLs, most of whom do not have the proficiency in Spanish for this strategy to be effective. Consequently, rather than being assisted in developing English literacy skills, they spend time relearning Spanish. Since many of these students have already acquired an identity as Americans, they may also develop resentment at being categorized as Hispanic and act out their frustrations in mixed classes.

In a research study done for the Department of Education in 2006, Ryll International provided data to support the need for better placement practices that distinguish ELL students according to their need for literacy instruction versus their need for the development of oral language skills. This study is pending publication by the Florida State TESOL Journal and can be accessed at the company's website, http://www.rillintl.com

It is not terrible to introduce reading in English but if these kids are learning to read for the first time, introducing reading earlier will not speed the process up. Kids who are learning to read for the first time do need to come to a particular oral fluency before they can begin to read. I would do more read alouds and not teach them that reading is drill and skill.

Ouch. Bilingual instruction only hurts students when it is poorly implemented. Otherwise, why would so many native English speaking families so eagerly seek to enroll their children in dual language programs? ELLs, like all children, need rigorous academic instruction. Like all children, they thrive in an environment with high expectations and in which they are valued for who they are and what they already know. Unfortunately, long-term ELLs have often been denied these opportunities. But a large body of research shows that ELLs who are born in the U.S. and who receive challenging literacy instruction in two languages often outperform their monolingual peers on academic tests in English.

Comments are now closed for this post.

Follow This Blog


Most Viewed on Education Week



Recent Comments

  • Charles: ELLs in our state ARE required to take State standardized read more
  • Melissa: Maybe I'm just becoming jaded, but this feels to me read more
  • Anonymous: Are you kidding me....UNO is an organizaion that literally destroys read more
  • Meg Baker: Are any schools using ACCESS scores for purposes other than read more
  • Dr. Mendoza: This is great news i must say. Hopefully this DREAM read more