A group of students preparing to register for the ACT test in the spring might seem like the picture of a typical high school classroom, except students in Alicia Milstead’s class do not speak English as their first language.

English is Brandon Becerra’s second language after Spanish, and the teen has lived in Tupelo nearly all of his life. The ninth-grader has been in the Tupelo School District’s English Learner program for more than five years.

“Sometimes I have trouble with reading, writing and understanding,” he said. “I think it is hard for EL students to learn a new language.”

Becerra said test-taking can be difficult for English Learners.

“Honestly it is, it is not high level, but sometimes the questions are confusing like it might ask what does this word mean, and sometimes I don’t know what the word is from the answer choices,” Becerra said.

Becerra is not alone. Today’s education system is built around the concept of high stakes testing from the third-grade reading gate to state tests given to elementary and high school students to college readiness exams like the ACT. The combination can be difficult for any student, but for those who are also struggling to learn English, the task can be particularly challenging.

School district leaders say the key for overcoming it is to develop classes that focus on helping English Learners pass milestone tests and to encourage these students to actively engage with their new social environment.

Becerra is one of the 444 English Learner students in Tupelo schools who shine a light on some of the difficulties faced by non-English speaking students seeking education in the U.S.

There are roadblocks on the path to academic success for English Learners.

These students receive tutoring or work with designated instructors to prepare for the same tests as their peers, except English Learners must also take a language proficiency test called LAS Links every year until they pass and are then monitored for four years before exiting the program.

There are currently 339 active and 105 monitored English Learners in Tupelo schools, and that number is growing.

Lea Ann Dunklee, English Learner director at Tupelo Public School District, said the number of these students has increased 3.6 percent from October to the present.

English Learner scores on state tests have an impact on performance ratings for school districts, and district ratings can suffer if these students take longer than five years to acquire proficiency in English.

“It’s a good thing because we now have a target to hit, but if we allow a student to go past five years – long-term ELs – we lose accountability points, and the rating for our district goes down,” Dunklee said.

Focus on grammar

Milstead said grammar is an area of required testing that can be difficult for English Learners. She prepares her students for the LAS Links test by focusing on grammar and reading comprehension but the test requires perfect grammar, which can prove to be a challenge.

“They struggle with grammar because they needed it when our schools had already finished teaching it,” Milstead said. “They take English classes but those classes are really not a place where they are being pushed to identify grammar.”

Pontotoc City Schools Director of Instruction Angela Quinn said interrupted education is a roadblock to these students moving forward in their education. Next year, two new classes will be implemented at Pontotoc High School to focus on language assistance, as well as state and subject testing.

An English Learner is someone between the ages of 3 and 21 not born in the U.S. or someone whose native language is not English. These students may face difficulties meeting state and federal testing requirements or being successful in classrooms.

“If they have had any interruption in their education, then you have to fill the content gap and the language gap at the same time and that just expands the challenge,” Quinn said.

The term English Learner developed from English as a Second Language (ESL) which was later scrapped because some students learn English and another language at the same time, and some may already know two or more languages.

The term then evolved from English Language Learner (ELL) into English Learner because the word “language” was considered redundant, as English is already a recognized language.

According to the Mississippi Department of Education, the English Learner population in Mississippi had expanded to well over 12,000 as of the 2016-17 school year.

As of early 2018, there were 35 districts in Mississippi that served between 10 and 50 of these students and 14 districts that served more than 300.

Lots of tests

Calhoun County School District Federal Programs Director Kim Springer said these students can receive accommodations for certain tests to assist with the language barrier.

Springer said the district makes testing accommodations such as assigning someone to read directions or test items, extended time for taking tests, and taking tests over multiple days.

These students take many of the same tests as their peers and can receive accommodations for many of them. English Learners take the state test (MAAP) in third through eighth grade, the third-grade reading gate test, subject tests in biology, English II, U.S. History and Algebra I in high school, and the state Kindergarten readiness test (MKAS) in elementary school.

English Learners take LAS Links in grades K-12 until they grow proficient but receive no testing accommodations for this test because the results inform the state whether these students are prepared for academic achievement in regular classes.

Milstead said the ACT test is a good way to gauge how high school EL students are progressing academically.

“I think it’s a good measure of how far they have come and what they do well on, so I think it does have its benefits because we do have some students who work tremendously hard to be proficient and to not rely on translators,” Milstead said. “They want to do it themselves, and I think it’s a great reward when they see their progress.”

However, ACT testing is even more restrictive than the LAS Links test.

Springer said English Learners can receive accommodations for the ACT test, but if not approved by ACT, it could mean their test results are not reportable to colleges.

Dunklee said a variety of factors determine how well English Learners acclimate to their new learning environment such as aptitude for learning a new language, educational background, motivation and age.

But schools will continue developing strategies to equip English Learners with the tools they need to move toward academic success.

“At the end of the day we want to help them achieve their full potential because they are valuable, they matter, and they benefit our community,” Dunklee said.

Recommended for you

comments powered by Disqus