Under one umbrella

Colorado schools' English Language Learners take new standardized test

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— Joselyn Ponce, 5, is one sound away from knowing what you put food into at the grocery store.

"Carrrr," the kindergartner at Soda Creek Elementary School said hesitantly to paraprofessional Marsha Davidson as Davidson pointed to a picture in a book.

As of Friday, the Steamboat Springs School District had 62 ELL students in grades K-12, and that number changes constantly, ELL coordinator Wren Lovett said. Soda Creek has 29 ELL students, the most of any school in the district, because of its role as a magnet school for ELL students.

Other schools' ELL student populations:

Soda Creek Elementary School: 29

Steamboat Springs Middle School: 15

Steamboat Springs High School: 11

Strawberry Park Elementary School: 7

"Tuh," Davidson adds, putting the final sound on the word "cart" as she and Joselyn broke into laughter.

It was a lighthearted moment during a serious lesson. Davidson is a full-time paraprofessional for English Language Learner, or ELL, students at Soda Creek, which has 29 of the Steamboat Springs School District's 62 ELL students.

Davidson works with all 29 of the children, who have come to Steamboat from countries including Mexico, China, Burma, Macedonia, Honduras, Chile and Colombia. Although the Friday afternoon lesson about fruits and vegetables was practice, what the students have learned soon will be put to an official test.

For the first time, ELL students throughout Colorado are taking a standardized test to measure their proficiency in English. An estimated 90,000 ELL students -- including thousands in the Denver area and 132 in Moffat County -- are expected to take the Colorado English Language Assessment, or CELA, test between March 27 and May 17.

Testing in Routt County begins this week, less than 10 days after many students completed another standardized test, the Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP.

"This is a time of accountability in education," said Kim Rabon, principal at South Routt Elementary School in Yampa.

For ELL teachers in Steamboat and Colorado, the CELA may be less about accountability than learning how to best teach a rapidly growing population of students.

Across the board

The CELA test is a result of the federal No Child Left Behind education act. After the U.S. Department of Education instructed Colorado to give a single ELL assessment aligned to state academic standards by the end of spring 2006, the CELA was created as a replacement for several language tests such as the IPT, or Idea Proficiency Test, which many ELL students took in the fall and in previous years.

"The IPT won't happen ever again," said Ann Sims, director of curriculum and instruction for the Steamboat school district.

A state education official said the CELA is designed to gather "baseline data" about the wide range of language skills possessed by Colorado students from an even wider range of backgrounds.

"This will help make ELL data a little more across-the-board," Rabon said. A former English as a Second Language teacher in the Denver area, Rabon will give the CELA test this week to South Routt's eight ELL students. Rabon will get help from Chris Crane, ELL coordinator for the Northwest Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

"The smaller districts can't afford to hire somebody on their own," Rabon said.

In Hayden, Superintendent Mike Luppes said he plans to give the CELA this week to his district's five ELL students.

"It should give our staff a real good idea of at what level the kids are functioning," he said.

Although only students in third through 10th take the CSAP, students from kindergarten to 12th grade are taking the CELA, which tests students in their English reading, writing and speaking skills.

Social language

Tammy Luviano, ELL coordinator for the Moffat County School District, said it usually takes less than two hours for a student to complete an entire CELA. Although her district has hired a former teacher to administer the reading and writing tests, Luviano said she is giving the 15-minute speaking test to all 132 ELL students, one at a time.

"I've been a little busy," she said last week. Luviano is in her first year as Moffat County's ELL coordinator.

The speaking test asks students -- depending on their grade and skill levels -- to identify pictures with words and phrases, make conversation or tell a story about actions shown in pictures. Davidson said it also can ask students to do things such as "point at the chair against the wall" or "put the pencil under the table."

The state provides a scoring rubric for its storytelling tests, Luviano said, which has provided a scale of one to four in the past. When she listens to a story, Luviano focuses on a student's grammar and word usage rather than plots and themes.

"As they're telling a story, especially the little kids, they can make up something that you're not really sure about," said Luviano, who tapes the speaking tests for later reference.

As long as they use full sentences for whatever story they make up, Luviano said, students can earn a score of three. Sounding like a native English speaker earns a four, even if students use slang, or what Luviano called "social language."

"Their speaking is going to be not just what they've picked up academically," she said. "Students tend to get social language before they get academic language."

Wren Lovett, Steamboat's ELL coordinator, said that difference creates a challenge with language testing.

"There's a lot of subtleties that aren't found on paper," she said.

Lovett said one benefit of the CELA tests will be that they use a five-point grading scale instead of the three-point scale used in Colorado to gauge language proficiency.

ELL students in the state are gauged as "Non-English Proficient," "Limited English Proficient" or "Fully English Proficient."

Lovett said that during the "five to seven years" it can take a student to learn a language, students can spend several years in the limited, or LEP, category, making it hard to show progress.

"LEP tends to be the lump group," Lovett said. "We'll be able to track them a little better (with CELA scoring)."

No pressure

Unlike the CSAP, this year's CELA test has no bearing on a school's annual School Accountability Report or whether it makes Annual Yearly Progress, two state methods of monitoring a school's academic progress.

The only effect test results may have for schools is on how much state funding they receive for ELL programs. Luppes said funding is at least partially dictated by how many students a school has at each proficiency level, giving CELA results at least an indirect correlation to state money.

Also unlike the CSAP, students can stop taking a portion of the CELA test -- each section of which gets progressively harder -- when they have difficulty.

"It's a no-pressure test, they just take it as far as they can and then they're finished," Luppes said.

Luviano said there is "a built-in anti-frustration" element of CELA tests, which could be given to students who came to Colorado very recently.

"We've had kids move in two weeks ago, and they speak no English whatsoever," Luviano said. "If they don't respond to prompts, that portion of the test can be skipped, so it doesn't become this huge frustration problem."

With the large number of students in Moffat County's ELL program, Luviano said the CELA test is giving her a rare chance to assess student abilities.

"I've enjoyed the speaking tests," she said, echoing a sentiment also felt by Luppes. "It's kind of nice to spend a few minutes talking with every kid in the district and listening to how they sound and how they've grown."

Luviano said giving the speaking test to all of her ELL students is one luxury of working in a small community.

"If you think about Grand Junction or Denver, that's got to be almost a nightmare," she said.

Another nightmare may be for students who take the CELA immediately after the CSAPs. Sims said that she already has asked the state to consider moving CELA tests to January or February next year to give test-weary children a break.

"We're talking about kids who are English-language deficient, already having to struggle with CSAP and then turning around and taking a lot of the same type of testing, but for a different purpose. They're definitely being overloaded with testing at a particular time," Sims said.

For Lovett, the first year of the CELA test will be as much of a learning experience for her as it will be for the students.

"You kind of have to work through a test once to get to know it," she said. "I'll know a lot more about (the CELA) in two weeks."

--o reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203

or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com

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