New York State School Boards Association

Three ways to connect the dots to support English language learners' performance

by Janet Ives Angelis & Kristen Campbell Wilcox

On Board Online • February 19, 2018

By Janet Ives Angelis & Kristen Campbell Wilcox

Why do the English language learners (ELLs) in some elementary schools beat the odds?

One reason is that their teachers and administrators effectively use data to monitor and support their performance, according to our study of six outstanding elementary schools.

These findings come from a study conducted in 2015-16 by the NYKids project in the University at Albany School of Education. Our goal was to identify practices in odds-beating elementary schools in New York State.

We selected schools for the study based on ELL student performance outcomes on 2012-13 and 2013-14 New York State mathematics and English language arts assessments across elementary grades as well as a variety of other demographic criteria. We classified schools as "odds-beating" if their ELLs exceeded expected average performance in ELA and mathematics at grades three through five or six on the two state assessments by at least one standard deviation making them statistically-significantly better performing.

Of the 127 potential odds-beaters outside New York City, we selected six urban, suburban, and rural schools for in-depth study, including site visits and interviews with a variety of staff and students. The six schools were:

  • Catskill
  • Schuylerville
  • Fostertown (Newburgh City School District)
  • Van Rensselaer (Rensselaer City School District)
  • Guilderland
  • Blue Creek (North Colonie Central School District)

These schools are not the highest performing in the state in terms of ELL performance, but when you take into account levels of poverty and diversity, they are unusual in a good way.

Overall, educators in the six schools embraced the maxim, "You can't get somewhere if you don't know where you're going," as expressed by the principal at Fostertown. And so they use data to not only know where they are going but also to work together to get there, using real-time data to plan and assess progress.

The schools collect and use data in three ways:

1. Using real-time data to connect instruction and interventions. Educators in the odds-beating schools pointed out that NYSESLAT (New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test) and ELA and math state assessment data are not timely enough or appropriate measures on which to base instructional adaptations and interventions. Instead, they rely on frequent formative assessments, benchmark tests and other data to monitor student progress and design instruction to meet areas of identified need. A "Data Analysis and Planning Sheet" used in Fostertown lists six different commercially available assessments as well as department tests." These data analysis and planning sheets are used by educators working in professional learning communities (PLCs) to identify areas of concern for individual students. Then they are used to set learning goals for each student as well as spell out teacher actions designed to help the student reach the goal. This collaborative process of analyzing data and planning interventions is part of the school's Response to Intervention (RTI) process.

Another example comes from Blue Creek, where the principal was credited by a district leader with not only looking at a variety of data to identify areas of need but also using faculty meetings for sharing those data. Staff then work together to come up with actions to take to try to close any identified gaps. In addition to measures of student performance, these data include measures such as which families participate in open-house night or conference days.

2. Establishing routines to collaborate about student performance. In all the odds-beaters collaboration was recognized as essential to meeting ELLs' learning needs. In Newburgh, for example, the superintendent regularly holds "DataCons" (data conversations) with all school and district leaders. At a DataCon each principal is called upon to present and discuss a variety of data points and to field questions from those present - school and district leaders. This process was described by a district leader as "both evaluative and supportive in nature." It offers new ideas for principals to try in their own buildings while encouraging consistency across a large district.

Fostertown also reinforces consistency within the building by using a data protocol for analyzing student performance on classroom assessments. Teachers, the principal and specialists meet in regularly scheduled grade-level meetings to review student work using the protocol. Teachers bring to the meetings formative assessments or any other student work or problem set they wish to discuss.

Technology fosters collaborative routines by facilitating the sharing of assessment data. For example, Blue Creek teachers provide "benchmark profile sheets" to the principal. They also upload student grades to an online portal that can be accessed by others. ENL, reading and classroom teachers who share students reported making particular use of data from the portal and then following up in person.

3. Tapping technology to communicate about performance. Several of the odds-beaters use commercial data management systems to foster the sharing of performance data throughout the school or district. Such systems can include benchmark and formative assessment data and report card grades as well as other data such as attendance. Parents and guardians, too, can use the system to access their children's grades, test scores and important school information. Guilderland invites parents to an information night to learn how to use the tool, which school leaders credited with developing a positive and open relationship between ELL families and the school. As one leader put it, the tool "provided an effective avenue [for parents] to learn about their children's progress without having to come to school or schedule a meeting with teachers."

Technology also is used to facilitate feedback to students through, for example, clickers, Chromebooks, and a variety of apps. In Blue Creek alone, we found more than 50 apps that were reportedly used to provide immediate feedback to teachers or students.

As the ELL population in New York State continues to expand, performance of this population tends to lag. Educators in the six odds-beating schools in this study, however, have harnessed the potential of technology to facilitate their ability to carefully monitor ELLs' progress, collaborate to address identified concerns, and communicate with each other and with families to support student learning. The result is better than predicted - i.e., odds-beating - performance by their ELL students.

Kristen Wilcox, an associate professor at the University at Albany, led the study and Janet Angelis was a member of the research team, along with Karen Gregory and Fang Yu. This article was adapted from from "Connecting the Dots for English Language Learners" published in the spring 2017 Journal for Leadership and Instruction, a publication of SCOPE Educational Services on Long Island. Download and/or read the study at .

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