First Person

Opinion: ELL students and changing minds

Alexander Ooms, a senior fellow at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, is a member of the board of the Charter School Institute, the West Denver Preparatory Charter School and the Colorado chapter of Stand for Children.

Additional attention to English Language Learner (ELL) students is unquestionably a good thing. Particularly given the large percentages of ELL students both in Denver and across Colorado, there can be no doubt that this is a critical issue.  There is simply not enough concerted attention on how schools support ELL students — and especially on specific strategies at both the district and school level to see what is most effective.

What there should not be, however, is opinion substituting for fact.

A Denver Public Schools student does class work in this EdNews file photo

A recent discussion on these page does exactly that. The claim is that any attempt at quantitative assessment — through state and district tools such as School Performance Frameworks, or representation of this data on sites like  — unjustly punish schools with high percentages of ELL students.

These kids, so the theory goes, don’t learn as fast as their non-ELL peers, and schools who have more of them will always do worse on academic growth.  And growth percentiles are the primary driver in most assessments.  By holding all schools equally accountable for the academic growth of their students, as a member of the Denver school board put it, these systems are shamefully guilty of:

“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”

Well, there is a blindness here, but it’s not the assessments.  It’s us. Conventional wisdom dictates that including scores from ELL students will depress academic growth — and I’ll admit that I believed it as well (although to a lesser extent than some).  I doubt I’m the only one.  But we are all mistaken, as this perspective could be Exhibit A for the blind acceptance of opinion and conjecture at the expense of data.

For what the data shows is that, over the past five years across Colorado, ELL students do better on median growth percentiles than non-ELL students — on aggregate, on every subject, and at virtually every grade level. Let’s start with a view across Colorado (red signifies where ELL students did worse than non-ELL students):

In aggregate, there is one subject score in the past five years where ELL students performed worse than non-ELL students. One.  So perhaps the claim “While we all want students to grow and succeed, [ELL] student growth must be reviewed under a different lens” takes on a different meaning.

Think you should have lower expectations for ELL students on academic growth, and for the schools and teachers that educate them?  Well, think again. Here is the 2011 Colorado growth data by grade level:

ELL students performed worse than their non-ELL peers on just three subject scores — two of them in 4th grade — out of 21 scores total. One of these three is much lower (4th grade reading).  But in six subject scores, ELL students were 5 points or more better than their non- ELL peers. Not, perhaps, what the many commentators on the original piece had in mind.

When questioned about a view contrary to what he had advocated previously, the economist John Maynard Keynes is reputed to have said: “When the circumstances change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?” So, I’ll admit it: I found the above surprising.  This data presents an entirely different set of circumstances than I previously envisioned.

But the mind resists.  Perhaps the ELL student growth is only higher when aggregated at the state level, and the results are different in urban centers like Denver?   Well, no – in Denver, the gap between ELL students and their non-ELL peers actually increases.  Over the past five years, ELL students in DPS have outperformed non-ELL students on growth, every year and in every subject, by an average of between 2 and 5 percentage points:

This data, which one can compile for oneself using CDE’s DataLab, turns the argument inside out.  Schools with large proportions of ELL students have higher growth percentiles — and thus better rankings — then if they had no ELL students at all. In fact, if there are any schools at a structural disadvantage on this issue, it is those who are without ELL students, not those with them.

How does this impact policy?  Let’s look at the four schools that were cited as specific examples — where a high proportion of ELL students were assumed to be damaging their median growth percentile scores, and thus their ColoradoSchoolGrade rankings:

Not once do ELL students score lower than non-ELL students.  Not in any school.  Not in any subject.  All of these schools have higher growth in their ELL students than their non-ELL students. And it’s not a small advantage, there is an overall average of 10 points higher. All four of these schools have growth in their ELL populations well above the state median (50).  All four have growth in their non-ELL students well below the state median. What is being penalized again?

Complain about their low rankings on assessments all one wants — but don’t blame the ELL students and their teachers. Without their scores, the schools would have all ranked lower, not higher, on assessment data. It is the ELL scores that are holding these schools up, not pushing them down.

When conditions change, I change my mind.  If there is a lesson in the past few years, it is that many conditions previously assumed simply don’t hold up under the sunlight of data and assessment. There are schools with mostly high-poverty students with remarkable academic growth.  There are schools with affluent school populations performing below the state averages.  There are specific demographic groups where students are experiencing growth far beyond assumptions.  There are schools where the achievement gap persists, masked by aggregated averages.  Conditions are not what many people thought they were.

And this is the fundamental point of a site like It is to present data to eliminate the misconceptions of schools and students that have no bearing in fact.  It is to try to reduce subjective opinion and unwarranted bias. It is to provide data as an entry point to further inquiry and a more complete understanding.

So when a sitting school board member criticizes this effort by writing:

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.

Well, we don’t have to speculate here, and we don’t need a complicated statistical analysis.  We need to have transparency and access to data — which, thanks in large part to the organizations maligned elsewhere in that post, are increasingly common. It’s now remarkably easy to find out exactly what the growth percentile would have been in Montbello had it not included ELL students (and it’s in the chart above). Note first that while there are 25 percent ELL students in the school overall, the cohort used to measure academic growth had an even higher proportion — a full 40 percent of students were ELL.  That, under the initial assumptions, was the injustice that unfairly sealed their doom.

So what would the schools median growth percentile been with a “bump in overall achievement” from eliminating the scores of the ELL students?  A full five points, um,  lower.  Yup, pull out the ELL students, and the academic growth scores at Montbello would have been even worse.  The decision to close Montbello might not have been different, but the conversation probably should have been more informed.

And that’s the point of data and assessments, isn’t it?  To rid us collectively of false assumptions and the dogma of our preconceived notions.  The erroneous and misshapen critique that evaluation systems punish schools with high ELL populations proves the fundamental point of why these systems are so critically important.  Don’t rely on speculation. Don’t assume that you know how good or bad a school is based on conjecture. Don’t conjure up some false reasoning for why some schools are penalized by the results. Start with the basic data, ask questions, and dig deeper.

And the growth data for ELL students surfaces some really interesting further questions: Why do ELL students have higher growth?  Which ELL students (based on the CELA test) are progressing the most, and how quickly?  Do school with a specific ELA programs see faster growth than those that don’t?  Are there schools whose ELL students — particularly ones with initial low CELA scores — who seem to be able to move these students along even faster?

CDE apparently has started to analyze CELA cohort growth scores, and hopefully they will quickly make these available.  There is a lot more to do here, and this subject deserves increased attention, not less.  But it also needs the right kind of inquiry.

We should try to answer a lot more questions regarding ELL students, but we should do so with an attention to data and to fact – not based on the assumptions, accusations, and preconceived notions that have far too often held all of us in thrall. Circumstances are often not what they first seem.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to [email protected]

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

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.