First Person

Opinion: Site ignores English language learners

This commentary was submitted by Andrea Mérida, a Denver school board member representing southwest Denver.

The ballyhoo over a new school grading website piqued my interest, so I surfed over to to check it out.  After all, the power partners that have coalesced around the website’s development and launch know how to make a splash.  And why wouldn’t I be interested in the fact that they’ve taken the pains to offer information in Spanish?

After just a few searches for some of the schools in my southwest Denver subdistrict, however, I see that this website is still using more of the same accountability blinders that punish schools and kids for their English-proficiency differences by trying to lump them all into the same bucket as native and fluent English speakers.

About English learners and proficiency

In accordance with state law, the Colorado Department of Education administers an English-language proficiency exam, the Colorado English Language Aquisition Proficiency Assessment (CELApro), to EVERY K-12 student yearly.  As CDE states, “The primary purpose of the assessment program is to determine the level at which Colorado non-English proficient (NEP) and limited-English proficient (LEP) students meet the Colorado English Language Development Standards in four domains (Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing).”

The English proficiency of each student is graded on a 1 to 5 scale: beginner (1), early intermediate (2), intermediate (3), proficient (4) and advanced (5).  According to DPS Chief Academic Officer, Susana Córdova, an English learner is considered linguistically ready to take the CSAP/TCAP when they have achieved either a level 4 or 5.

However, even if a student is not linguistically ready to take the CSAP in English, their scores will be averaged into the district’s and state’s school performance framework, and consequently, into the website data.  You can imagine how that pans out.

Worse, none of these “accountability tools” truly give full weight to the Spanish-language version of the CSAPs administered for 3rd and 4th grade, skewing the performance of elementary schools with high numbers of English learners in incredibly unfair ways.

Some pertinent examples

CDE provides information about the language proficiency for every designated English learner in the state, and I’ve used it to analyze the level of English proficiency for middle and high schools, which only administer the CSAP in English.  In nearly every case, our schools that are classified as “yellow” (accredited on watch) all have high numbers of English learners that are below the “safe linguistic threshold” of a CELApro level 4 or 5.  Here are a few examples:

For the purposes of this chart, I call those students at CELApro level 4 and 5 as “ready for CSAP.”  As you can see from this small sampling, schools with high proportions of English learners are maligned by the website as substandard.

Clearly, the mission of schools with high proportions of English learners takes on a different perspective than schools with lower concentrations.  While we all want students to grow and succeed, student growth must be reviewed under a different lens when student populations come from homes in which English is not the primary (or sole) language., therefore, unfairly glosses over this distinction and makes no attempt to inform parents of these nuances.  When dealing with populations that have difficulty in English and who are regularly exposed to various types of hucksterism in their daily lives, it becomes all the more important for a website that purports to serve as a resource for parents to be fully transparent.

To do otherwise is irresponsible.

This type of data has been the basis for extremely high-stakes decisions made about kids, teachers and their schools.  As I retrospectively consider last year’s board decision to phase out Montbello High School, for example, imagine how differently the school’s performance would have seemed had we considered the 25 percent of students who are not ready to take the CSAP in English.  Not being a statistician, I will defer to those who can calculate the probability of a 25 percent bump in overall achievement if those scores are even just disaggregated from the whole.  I wonder if the board’s decision would have been different if we knew then what I know now.

Students at Kepner Middle School, one of the schools represented by Denver school board member Andrea Merida. Photo from Kepner.

As the Northwest Community Committee pointed out to the board this week, among all the other goals Spanish-speaking parents find important in schools, they also consider learning English to be primary (see the Venn diagram on page 9).  These parents know their children have particular needs, and they expect the policymakers to realize it, too.

I have regular conversations with my Spanish-speaking constituents in southwest Denver, who express worry over the performance of their schools.  When I point out to Kepner Middle School parents, for example, that their school has been able to increase the rate of students at CELApro levels 4 and 5 by nearly 30 percentage points over the last four years, their relief is palpable.

And the former Rishel Middle School?  In 4 short years, they increased the numbers of students at CELApro levels 4 or 5 by a whopping 40 percent.  But there is no Rishel now; it’s been closed.

If the development team at really wants to be a resource for Spanish-speaking parents, they would do well to join me in peeling back the layers of the accountability onion in good faith and transparency so that ALL parents can make the right choices for their children.

This offer has no expiration date.  Will take me up on it?

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.