Filling the Gaps in Understanding for Spanish-Speaking Students

Filling the Gaps in Understanding for Spanish-Speaking Students -TLG-IMG-02052019One of the foundational purposes of assessment is providing good data—and useful data—to teachers and administrators to help them understand their students’ learning. But sometimes, it can be hard to know if your data is “good.” You might wonder: is your whole class represented accurately by your assessment data? What about your Spanish-speaking students? Do your assessments let them fully show what they know?

We had a chance to talk to two former teachers on our Content Solutions team here at NWEA (the test creators!) to learn more about representation in assessment—and specifically, how assessing native Spanish-speaking students in Spanish can fulfill a need for better representation and potentially fill a gap in knowledge for teachers.

Adam Withycombe, DEd., Manager of Assessment Products, started his teaching career as a bilingual teacher in 3rd and 5th grade. He also taught in mainstream English classrooms from 3rd through 8th grade at schools with large populations of English language learners. Additionally, he taught graduate courses in English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) methodology. Teresa Krastel, PhD, Spanish Solution Lead, started as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher and taught Spanish at all levels from 7th through 12th grade and at the undergraduate level, as well as graduate courses in Hispanic Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition.

In your experience as teachers, what are some of the challenges that teachers face in understanding where Spanish-speaking students are in their learning?

Adam: In all of my classrooms, I found it a challenge to really know what my students could do and how to simultaneously support their academic and language needs. The classroom is a place of immense diversity: learning styles, linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and language proficiency levels—the latter being the most relevant to languages. Testing in a student’s second language typically raises the question of whether you are measuring English proficiency or academic performance, and it’s often difficult to parse those two, especially when trying to assess reading.

Teresa: My background is mainly in Spanish language and second language acquisition, so I tend to see language learning through the lens of second language acquisition and curriculum and instruction. Supporting the needs of English Language Learners is a large piece of those educational contexts in the US today.

To add to Adam’s point, students also come into classrooms at different points in time with different levels of English proficiency and different educational backgrounds and experiences. Student variability is already a component of every classroom, but English Learners add another layer of complexity to the equation.

Speaking of the US, how many students does this potentially impact?

Adam: According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2018), there are approximately 4.8 million English Language Learners in US public schools. That represents more than nine percent of all public school students. Of those English Learners, 77% are native Spanish speakers.

Geographically speaking, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, and California have the largest proportion of English Learners, ranging from 15 to 21 percent, respectively.

Teresa: The US is also experiencing a shift toward valuing a student’s native language and what that brings to their educational experience. As a result, programs increasingly support the values of bilingualism and biliteracy or theories of second language acquisition; that is, the more you know in your first language, the better the transfer to the second language.

You can see this in a number of instructional approaches, including early- and late-exit bilingual language programs and dual immersion programs, where a significant portion of instruction is dedicated to teaching in another language.

Tweet: Filling the Gaps in Understanding for Spanish-Speaking Students #edchat #educationDo you think it is important to test in a student’s native language, and if so, why?

Adam: Yes, testing in a student’s native language recognizes the unique differences that language presents, especially in reading. It is well-cited in research that a student’s level of English language proficiency can affect assessment outcomes (see, for example, this Jamal Abedi study). For any measure that uses language to assess language and reading, this is especially critical.

Assessment in the dominant language could provide improved measurement of the construct of interest. For example, the language components of a story problem in math could mask a student’s ability to demonstrate understanding of the math in question. Students who are instructed in Spanish should be able to demonstrate growth relative to that instruction, as opposed to trying to approximate that growth with an English assessment.

Teresa: I agree, Spanish assessments provide increased opportunities to better measure what teachers are teaching in the language that they are teaching it. This applies to all subjects, but especially to reading.

Stay tuned for more from our interview with Adam and Teresa as NWEA continuously innovates to provide better and more inclusive measures of students and their learning.