Digital technology helps California district improve assessment for English language learners


By 2025, 1 in 4 U.S. public school students will be an English-language learner. As a result, school districts and educators across the country are rising to the challenge of improving language development among their diverse, complex and rapidly growing student populations.

Some districts have leveraged digital technology to help achieve this goal — and with promising outcomes.

In California, for instance, 26 percent of K-12 students in the San Bernardino City Unified School District (SBCUSD) are not fully proficient English speakers. Faced with this reality, the process of assessing students’ language proficiency proved to be very challenging. The school district had nearly 14,000 English learners at all levels of English proficiency, and their teachers were not sure of each student’s language ability, or how to assess it.

At the beginning of each school year, English learners were required to take the state mandated CELDT (California English Language Development Test), but teachers did not have access to the results until January or February — by which time the information was outdated and of no assistance in improving students’ academic experience.

In the fall of 2015, the SBCUSD English Learner Program team introduced a new paper-and-pencil test so that teachers could assess their students’ language abilities at the beginning of the semester. The speaking portion had to be administered by a teacher and then, along with the written test, hand-scored. This laborious process was not popular among teachers, most of whom had to evaluate one-quarter of their students each year.

Moreover, with the introduction of the Common Core curriculum in 2015, English learners faced an even greater academic challenge. “Language is embedded throughout all the content of the Common Core standards, so it’s even more critical that we know if kids are acquiring English or not,” said Ana Applegate, director of K-12 English learner programs at SBCUSD. “A student cannot succeed with the higher levels of Common Core without language proficiency. We’re seeing the data — Common Core is more rigorous — and we’re pulling the rug out from under English learners if we don’t deliver more effective English language instruction so that they can reach those higher levels.”

The school district needed an assessment that was simple to administer and would provide teachers with immediate data to inform decisions about their instructional approach. SBCUSD also needed a test that was aligned with California’s 2012 ELD standards and tested the same domains as the CELDT. Ideally, the test would also be consistent with the forthcoming English Learners Proficiency Assessment for California (ELPAC) that the SBCUSD piloted during the 2016-2017 school year and would begin using for all schools in the 2017-2018 school year.

The role of digital technology

To help students achieve language proficiency, during the 2016-2017 school year, SBCUSD decided to conduct a digital technology assessment pilot.

The school district trained teachers and administrators, and then successfully rolled out a technology solution called Test of English Language Learning (TELL™), from Pearson, in 70 schools in only five months.

Leveraging digital technology, TELL is a touchscreen-delivered language proficiency assessment for grades K-12. It takes 20 to 50 minutes for students to complete. English learners read, write, speak and answer questions out loud, and the technology captures their oral responses using innovative speech recognition technology. Students watch highly engaging video clips and interact with pictures and words, and they are also able to write letters or words with their fingers on the screen.

Scoring is automatic, and technology screens, diagnoses and monitors students’ progress throughout the year. The scoring technology taps into several skills with a single item, commonly referred to as “integrated skills” assessment. When a student watches a video clip and then describes what they saw, the digital learning and assessment solution can measure their speaking skills as well as several sub-skills, including grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and fluency.

Immediate feedback is critical for success in assessing language capabilities

Digital technology can provide educators with immediate feedback on their students’ English-language capabilities at the beginning of the semester, which is critical.

“Using digital technology, we now have a critical piece of data — in real time — that we didn’t have before,” Applegate said. “By knowing each child’s language skills for writing, reading, speaking and listening, teachers can address areas of weakness and we can more accurately diagnose necessary interventions. That’s just huge for our English learners.”

At Monterey Elementary in San Bernardino, where 70 percent of students are learning English as a second language, language support teacher Laura Hunt has also found the digital technology helpful in assessing her students’ language capabilities.

“We were able to take the kids in, give them the test, and within 15 minutes, the teachers had their results and knew exactly where their students were,” Hunt said.

With the help of digital technology, reports are available in minutes so teachers know their English learners’ proficiency levels and can make informed instructional decisions.

Moreover, these reports are available in an interactive roster format, and teachers can compare results from two assessments, see score changes and filter by proficiency, grade, groups, classes, gender, ethnicity and number of years in English language learning. The digital technology also makes it possible to produce multi-year aggregate reports for administrators, with parent reports also available in English, Spanish and Chinese.

Getting results quickly enough to change the instructional approach made a big difference in the lives of SBCUSD English learners. For example, according to Hunt, 6th grade students are eager to be reclassified by the end of the school year, in order to make it possible for them to begin taking electives in middle school. Without the immediate feedback, that might not be possible. “We only have a limited amount of time with the kids each week. Having the scores right away meant we could focus on needed areas of improvement, so that we can prepare them to be reclassified to English-proficient faster,” Hunt said.

Based on the successful pilot, SBCUSD plans to expand use of the digital technology solution for the next school year to test more proficiency levels.

Michelle Bracken works as a program specialist in the
English Learner Programs Department in San Bernardino City Unified School