Growing Winterfield and ELL Students

Orchestra 9Winterfield, like other K-8 schools in the state of N.C., recently finished our End of Grade testing and the pressure is on.  You see our school is a struggling school.  We have all the demographics that say we are going to have challenges obtaining high levels of proficiency for our students.  

  • High levels of students from a low-socioeconomic background: check.  
  • High levels of students who are learning English: check.  
  • Large numbers of beginning teachers: check.  
  • Historically low performance: check.  
  • Participation in a district school turnaround effort: check.

Our teachers fight against our demographics every day.  Offering some of the best instruction available in our district, but our numbers, our statistics do not always match our work.  Why?  If you put in at least 20 hours outside of the school day perfecting your craft, shouldn’t it work?  Shouldn’t student proficiency drastically improve? If you have strong interventions and support systems in place, shouldn’t student proficiency improve?   If you read every. single. book on teaching kids living in poverty and implement the “best practices”, shouldn’t student proficiency improve?  Yes.  Student proficiency improves.  It is just not as fast as you would like it to be.  Or as fast as you need it to be for school performance grading in North Carolina.

You see we are working to overcome years of challenging situations in the lives of children.  We are working to overcome deficits that leave students at least 2-3 years below grade level.  The work is hard.  Rewarding, but hard.

I was invited to take leadership of Winterfield at the start of the 2014-2015 school year to help make a difference in the educational lives of our students and and staff as a part of the Beacon Initiative.  In 2015, we were able to increase student achievement to 30.4% proficient and we received a letter grade of D. The formula used to calculate performance grades counts student proficiency at 80% and student growth at 20%. In 2015, 87% of our students met/exceeded growth expectations.  To put this in context, in 2014 our school did not meet growth expectations; we exceeded expectations in 2015.  However, the formula only counted our growth as 20% of the school performance grade.  Either way, we are extremely proud that we moved from a grade of an F to a D in a single year.  Here are a few highlights from Year 1:

  • In 2015, our Kindergarten students grew from 29% to 80% reading at/above grade level as measured by Reading 3D/TRC.
    • Kindergarten growth as measured by EVAAS +7.8 (Exceeds Expected Growth)
    • Highest growth in CMS for Limited English Proficient students
    • Highest growth in CMS for Economically Disadvantaged students
  • In 2015, our 1st grade students grew from 39% to 62% reading at/above grade level as measured by Reading 3D/TRC.
    • 1st grade growth as measured by EVAAS +17.7 (Exceeds Expected Growth)
    • Highest growth in district for Limited English Proficient students
    • Highest growth in district for Economically Disadvantaged students
  • In 2015, our 2nd grade students grew from 40% to 68% reading at/above grade level as measured by Reading 3D/TRC.
    • Kindergarten growth as measured by EVAAS +15.9 (Exceeds Expected Growth)
    • Highest growth in district for Limited English Proficient students
    • Highest growth in district for Economically Disadvantaged students
  • In 2015, our 4th grade math growth as measured by EVAAS +4.2 (Exceeds Expected Growth).  During the 2013-2014 school year, 4th grade students did not meet growth expectations (-4.6)
  • MAP Reading Assessment Results 2014-2015
    • More than 50% of students met/exceeded their projected growth in reading in grades 1st-5th
    • The conditional growth index in grades 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th was strong to exceptional
  • MAP Math Assessment Results 2014-2015
    • More than 50% of students met/exceeded their projected growth in reading in grades K-3rd grade.
    • The conditional growth index in grades 1st and  2nd grade was exceptional
  • Our principal was selected as the Northeast Garinger Learning Community Principal of the Year.
    • Our principal earned a conditional growth index of +12.16 (exceeds growth) for the 2014-2015 school year.
  • We have highly effective teachers in our building.
    • In 2014-2015, 68% of teachers exceeded student growth expectations and the remaining 32% met student growth expectations.
    • Ms. Best, 5th grade teacher, was selected as the Northeast Garinger and Vance Learning Community Teacher of the Year.
  • Our school exceeded growth expectations with a growth index of 2.83 as measured by N.C. DPI EVAAS.
    • Our school composite for level 4 and 5 on the End of Grade Assessment grew from 16% to 21%
    • Our state performance grade improved from an F in 2014 to a D in 2015.
    • More than 63% of our 3rd graders met the Read to Achieve expectation. We began the year with only 7% earning a passing score on the Beginning of Grade Assessment of Reading.
    • In 5th grade science, 41.38% of our students scored at/above grade level, and increase of 11.88 percentage points from 2013-2014.
    • In 2013-2014 only 29.5% were on grade level in 5th grade science.
  • Our Instructional Culture Index grew from a 5.9 in the Spring of 2015 to an 8.0 in the Winter of 2015.  We exceeded district performance in three areas: professional development, observation and feedback, and evaluation.

We are pushing for a letter grade of a C for 2016.  I am not able to share our progress during year two of my leadership at this time, but I am proud to say we have made significant gains in both proficiency and growth.  Will it be enough to earn a letter grade of C?  When thinking about schools that typically earn an F or D in North Carolina we have an additional demographic that should be considered; Over 55% of our students are English Language Learners.

Winterfield has students from over 25 countries who speak 21 different languages.  We believe that the richness of our students’ native languages and cultures are an asset to our school community.  Our primary instructional challenge is working with a high population of English learners with limited and interrupted prior schooling resulting from a lack of educational opportunities and/or trauma in their native countries. Many of our English Language Learners come directly from refugee camps.   Some are undocumented students who may have been unable to attend school in their home countries for a variety of reasons.  While others are US born children of undocumented immigrants who have are yet proficient speakers of English.

Currently, 52% of Winterfield’s EOG tested students are Limited English Proficient.  Seventeen percent of our Limited English Proficient 3rd-5th graders have been enrolled in a U.S. school for two years or less.  Yet, the majority of them were required to take and pass the N.C. EOG for reading.

Per State Board of Education policy GCS-C-021 (16NCAC 6G.0312), all students identified as limited English proficient must participate in the statewide testing program (i.e., standard test administration or standard test administration with accommodations) with the exception of students identified as limited English proficient who score below Level 4.0 Expanding on the reading subtest of the WIDA-ACCESS Placement Test (W-APT) and are in their first year in U.S. schools.

We had to test all of our ELLs except those who scored below 4.0 on ACCESS and were in their first year in U.S. schools.  This year, 16 students in grades 3-5 were exempt from End of Grade Assessments based upon board policy GCS-C-021 (16NCAC 6G.0312).   While the one year provision may seem like a fair distinction, it gets muddy depending on when a child enrolls.  For example, if you arrive in the U.S. in May and enroll in school, May to June counts as a full year in school.  You will need to take the End of Grade assessment in reading the following school year.  Students typically do not score a 4.0 during their second year in a U.S. school. A review of our student data shows that roughly 20% of our students have earned a 4.0 on the reading subtest of the WIDE-ACCESS after 2 years of U.S. schooling.   How likely is it that a child who is just learning English will earn a proficient score on an English reading comprehension test with only a single year of English schooling?

This places undue pressure on our school to accelerate the rate at which our students learn and master English far above what research shows.  Research shows that on average, ELL students take between four and seven years to become proficient in “academic English”— the language needed to succeed in the classroom. (source: http://goo.gl/UdiztH)

North Carolina is expecting students to accomplish this task in a single year or in some cases in a few months.  The difference between the state expectation and research places schools like Winterfield in a particularly precarious position, especially in light of school performance grading.  

The burden of school performance grades also ignores research about the ease of learning English based upon language distance, the extent to which languages differ from each other (Chiswick & Miller, 2005, p. 1).  Language distance focuses on the ease of learning of English based upon a person’s native language.  Spanish has a .44 index whereas Burmese and Nepali have an index of .57.  Twenty percent of our LEP students speak a native language other than Spanish and the ease of learning English decreases for Asian languages as well as Arabic.

Winterfield has done a tremendous job making a difference in the English proficiency (listening, speaking, reading and writing) capabilities of our students.  Last year, we were able to exit 11% of our ELLs from direct ESL services.  This year, preliminary ACCESS data shows that 23% will exit.  This includes 56% in 3rd grade, 40% in 4th grade and 24% of our 5th grade students.  Last year, we exceeded state expectations for student proficiency on the Reading 3D/TRC assessment in Kindergarten, 1st grade and 2nd grade.  We also bested our district.

So why am I writing this?  As a school leader I am always paying attention to our data and I am charged with regulating the pressures of outside forces as well as the day to day challenges in teaching and learning in a challenging school.  I need to explain our progress to our community.  I need to motivate our teachers.  I need to provide a compelling vision to move our work forward.  Having a true understanding of our school and our reality is one step in that direction.  So, in essence, Winterfield is being pushed to do something that research says takes more time than we are given.  Our school is up for the challenge; we just need a realistic expectation in terms of our children who are learning English as well as a state grading system that takes growth into consideration.

Chiswick, B.R., & Miller, P.W. (2005).  Linguistic distance: A quantitative measure of the distance between English and other languages.  Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 26 (1), 1-11.

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