At the beginning of every school year, Michigan educators go through the process of identifying students who are ELLs. At the end of every school year, educators across the state examine data to make decisions about whether or not students are ready to be exited from ELL status. The reason we go through this process of identifying and reclassifying ELLs is obvious—to ensure that students who are in the process of acquiring English proficiency have a meaningful opportunity to learn (OTL). However, the mechanics of ensuring OTL are much more complex.
In reality, there are five key aspects to ensuring OTL for ELLs. This quintessential quintet can help educators evaluate how well their schools are performing when it comes to providing ELLs with OTL. You can click on each of these five elements to explore how them and learn more about common errors that arise in schools.
1. Proper Identification
Ensuring ELLs have opportunities to learn stems from this initial point at which these students are identified as an ELL. Without this formal identification, which is often a team effort between school staff involved in enrolling students and teachers, students may never receive the linguistic supports they need in order to be successful in the classroom. In an earlier article, we described the proper steps Michigan educators must take when enrolling students and even spoke with Michigan educators in another article on what their schools' processes include.
Most Common Errors: Schools are generally caught in the haze of state and federal mandates and so tend to view the process of identifying ELLs only as a part of mandatory compliance, which masks the very important role they play in providing access. What it boils down to is that the identification process serves as a signal to classroom teachers about which students are in need of English language development services. If students are not properly identified, classroom teachers do not get this signal.
2. Meaningful Services and Resources
Once the identification hurdle has been cleared, educators must ensure that ELLs receive services and resources that help them tackle the process of acquiring English proficiency and making gains in academic content areas. The key is that these services must be meaningful to each individual child; services must match each student's needs in order to be effective.
Most Common Errors: It is often the case that ELLs are underserved because of a misalignment between their needs and the services and resources schools provide. In essence, schools provide services, but the services do not match up with the student's learning needs. This is akin to providing a child who is a struggling reader with a math intervention—it just doesn't add up. One common error is that services are often not well differentiated for students at different points of English language proficiency. For example, students who possess an intermediate level of English proficiency often receive the same set of English language development services as students who are just beginning to learn English.
Another common problem is that resources provided to support older ELL students are not age-appropriate. It is not uncommon to see teachers using first-grade picture book materials with high school students, which is likely to leave students feeling belittled and embarrassed. In addition, it does not help students work towards integration into grade-level content classrooms. This extreme example helps illustrate the point that students may not always be receiving instruction that is aligned with their grade-appropriate academic content.
3. Regular Assessment
Having the appropriate tools is one piece to the OTL puzzle for ELLs, but knowing what to do with them and how and when to adjust them is a different one. These adjustments can only be achieved by regularly assessing students' learning. This occurs through formative assessment practices as well as timely and thoughtful reviews of the students' achievement on standardized tests. We recently visited Hiller Elementary School in Lamphere Public Schools, whose Data Wall included not only an indication of each student's reading level, but also each ELL student's current stage of language development. Teachers gathered at the Data Wall on a regular basis to discuss the students' progress and brainstorm next steps for each student. This method ensured teachers had easy access to assessing their students' progress and further ensured that they were adjusting services, tools, and methods to continuously challenge each student, thereby ensuring ELLs had OTL.
Most Common Errors: More and more schools are implementing formative assessment practices across content areas to gauge students' progress in mastering objectives over time. However, this same practice is not always extended to assessing progress in the four language domains (listening, speaking, reading, writing). Or, in cases where ESL teachers are conducting formative English language development assessments, the information gleaned from these assessments is often not passed along to general education teachers.
4. Smart Reclassification
This monitoring and instructional adjustment road ends when schools have strong indicators that ELL students can be successful in the mainstream classroom without additional language support services. In Michigan, these indicators are primarily based on the state's summative assessments. Students must reach a particular level of proficiency on the summative ACCESS for ELLs assessment of English language proficiency, as well as achieving proficiency on the state's English Language Arts and Mathematics summative assessments. Educators may also look at other indicators in addition to the minimum requirements for students set by the Michigan Department of Education. The full set of requirements for exiting from services can be found in the Office of Field Service's Entrance & Exit Protocol document. Like identifying ELLs, it is critical to ground decisions to reclassify ELLs in concrete data.
Schools must make these exiting decisions in the month of June (by June 30th) each year and do so on an individual basis. They should be made as a part of a thoughtful decision making process. If a student is exited too early, the student may lose access to a support system they need. They may struggle in the mainstream classroom without these supports. If a student is retained in ELL services for too long, then their opportunities to gain access to more rigorous academic content could be inhibited.
Most Common Errors: It is important for teachers to also know that the power of exiting students from services is truly in their hands. The Michigan Department of Education recognizes that individual schools know these students best and therefore leaves the process of manually exiting them by updating demographic information in the Michigan Student Data System (MSDS) to schools. It is all too often the case that educators determine that ELLs are ready to be reclassified, but this is not updated on MSDS. Consequently, when the child arrives at school to start the next academic year, he/she will still be considered an ELL and in all likelihood receive services he/she no longer needs.
5. Continued Monitoring
Even though students who have been exited from services no longer carry a formal identification label in Michigan, Title III requires schools to monitor their progress for a period of two years after exiting from language services. This helps to ensure that districts have made a good exiting decision. If a student appears to be struggling without language support services, a district could choose to re-enter the student into services. This continued monitoring process ensures that students will remain supported, promoting access and OTL, if the need arises.
Most Common Errors: Schools often approach the process of monitoring students from a compliance-oriented perspective. It is very common to see schools look at the end of each of the two monitoring years to see whether or not the student was proficient on state content area assessments. Instead, the monitoring progress should be continuous so that any problems that arise can be addressed during the academic year.
As the number of ELL students continues to rise in Michigan, it is essential for administrators, teachers, and even front office need staff to understand the role they play in ensuring that ELL students have the opportunity to learn. Please feel free to reach out to us with questions or comments about how to effectively implement these five aspects of ELL education in your school!