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English language learners struggle for proficiency

Schools examine why few ELL students advance out of program in seven years

The Tigard-Tualatin School District has struggled for years to lower the achievement gap between its English speaking students and English language learners.

ELL students have floundered in the classroom, and it has left district leaders scratching their heads.

There are about 1,300 ELL students in the district, about 14 percent of whom have been in ELL programs for at least seven years.

By now, these students should be nearing the end of their ELL careers, said Rachel Stucky, the district’s director of curriculum. It takes a student between five and seven years to master a language enough to become proficient.

But after compiling the data, Stucky said that isn’t happening.

Only 1 percent of students in the program for seven years are nearing proficiency, she said.

ELL students are rated on their proficiency from one (beginner) to five (advanced). Their rating goes up as they become more proficient, before eventually leaving the ELL program entirely.

Of the 173 students who have been in the system for a full seven years, Stucky said, only three students have reached Level 5.

The majority of students — about 60 percent — are at Level 4. The rest, a staggering 37 percent, are at Level 3 or below, including about four students who were still classified at beginner-level proficiency after nearly a decade in the district’s ELL program.

“This is highly problematic,” Stucky told the Tigard-Tualatin School Board on Monday.

“Until Level 5, students lack that cognitive, academic level of proficiency that (most state and local) tests are designed for,” she said.

Lingering problem

It’s not a new problem. The district has struggled for years to help its ELL students.

In September, the Oregon Department of Education released a report about the proficiency of English language learners. Tigard-Tualatin’s students outperformed the rest of Washington County and the state average, but failed to meet federal goals.

A few years ago, the district took steps to combat the problem in younger grades, which the district expects to have an impact on students’ proficiency as they work their way through the system.

Two elementary schools have started dual-language immersion classes, teaching students in a mix of English and Spanish in order to help Spanish-speaking students assimilate better.

Tualatin Elementary School won state recognition this year for its work to lower the achievement gap between white and Latino students. The school provides some native-language instruction in kindergarten and first grade, where specific content is taught in Spanish. It was named a National Title I Distinguished School last year for its work to close the achievement gap.

But those are in elementary school, said School Board member Bob Smith. The real challenge comes in middle and high school, where students appear to lose what ground they have gained.

The district plans to survey administrators and ELL teachers about what is, and is not, working in the district’s ELL program, Stucky said. She also cited a few areas of improvement that have already presented themselves.

Stucky said there needs to be a more consistent use of curriculum between teachers and more clear direction from the district office.

“Organizational change is hard,” she said. “Through nobody’s fault, this program has landed on several people’s desktops over the last few years, so strong, direct instructional leadership is needed.”

Some of the improvements are outside of the classroom, Stucky said, like offering better translation services for families when they register their children for classes.

“When parents come to register their students, they need to have that information right away and not be sent away to get a translation later on,” Stucky said. “We need to provide resources right away and be more responsive to all languages, not just the most common languages like Spanish and Russian, but less common languages like Farsi and Chuukese.”

Stucky plans to look outside the district to see what other schools do.

Whatever the district does, Stucky said, it won’t come overnight.

“We are balancing a real sense of urgency to improve our practices with the careful planning the sustainability requires,” she said.

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