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By Guest Writer Jennifer Healey
This New Year’s Eve, I deserved an extra glass of champagne. I toasted myself for my success as an educator. After years of "failure," in 2015 I was deemed a “successful” teacher by the illustrious Oregon Department of Education. It all went by so fast! It seems like only yesterday I was chuckling with colleagues when the text of the NCLB law was read aloud at a meeting. “Wait a minute, what was that? By 2014 every English Language Learner (ELL) will be ‘proficient’?”
“No, it sounds like everyone will be ‘above average’!”
“Are we moving to Lake Woebegone?”
Oh how we did laugh and laugh. And the years flew by.
RIP NCLB. In short, the 2001 law required that ELL students learn English not only faster, but in some cases instantly upon moving to the United States. I don’t know any teachers who took the legislation as realistic. Unfortunately, our administrators and newly identified “stakeholders” seemed to lose a lot of sleep over it. Here in Oregon, a revolving door of “State Chief Deputy Superintendents of Education Officers” issued biannual press releases to proclaim our failure to the masses:
-In 2012, Rudy Crew, who quit after one year, called us “inadequate” and told us to “Stop making excuses.” Then he cashed his $238,000 check and moved away.
-His successor, Rob Saxton, said our state’s graduation rate was “unacceptable” and ELL test scores “leave much to be desired.” He and the former governor, John Kitzhaber, who resigned recently in disgrace, also stated that by 2025, 100% of students would graduate from high school and 80% would attend college. Saxton admitted our work was “unfinished” when he quit in April of this year, but most of us were too busy administering the 10-hour Smarter Balanced test to notice his departure.
-Our administrators said we would lose our federal funding unless we improved our instruction.
-The district superintendent called our ELL students’ performances on state tests “dismal.”
-And as the students kept arriving from Nepal, Myanmar and China, just to name a few, and we teachers kept teaching.
I got used to being called a failure, but I never believed it. I had all the evidence and data I needed to conclude that I am a good teacher, my students are successful, and our work is important.
No one involved in education reform has ever been able to explain how students who are “below proficient” by definition -- such as ELL’s and those receiving Special Education services -- are going to become proficient. No one has said publicly that a learning disability might preclude a student from passing a standardized test. I’m no math teacher, but doesn’t there need to be a “below average” percentage in order to have an “average” or “above average?”
Inexplicably, legislators and other “stakeholders” don’t grasp the simple fact that a student who is making the leap to English literacy from another language can’t possibly be expected to outperform a mainstream student who grew up in our schools. At least not right away. At the secondary level, the tests not only involve advanced English, but advanced content as well. Could the average college-educated American adult pass an 11th grade exam in Mandarin? I know they could not. And the leaders of this reform movement must know it too, which might be why so many of them don’t stick around to reap the results of their reforms.
This brings me to my “success.” Before Mr. Saxton quit, he helped usher in a new era in state testing. His greatest coup in my opinion: he oversaw the decision to change the cut scores of our state test for ELL's, the English Language Proficiency Assessment (ELPA). These numbers, put in place years ago when we first piloted the test, determine the level of placement of ELL’s from Beginner to Advanced. They are also the scores used to determine which districts meet the all-important Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs) under NCLB. When they were lowered last year, it was much easier for a student to advance to the next level or exit out of the English Language Development program altogether.
Consequently, an education miracle occurred! Using the new cut scores, suddenly several school districts were meeting the targets. (It had only been two in years past.) My district was among the “successful” ones who managed to meet AMO’s and were then deemed "acceptable" by the Oregon Department of Education. The administrators applauded us. The superintendent sent the ELL teachers a nice congratulations email. There may have been coffee and bagels in the faculty lounge- I’m not sure because I’m always too busy to go there.
So Happy New Year, ELL teachers! I guess I’ll toast my success while I can. I’ll probably be branded a failure again soon enough as the Every Student Succeeds Act is implemented nationwide. But in the meantime, let us all raise our glasses to another year of accountability. I’m all for it! Perhaps in 2016, all legislators, administrators and various other “stakeholders” will be given standardized tests to determine their competency to evaluate classroom teachers. The tests should be summative, accurate, effective, computer adaptive, secure and, of course, rigorous. Oh, and I think they should be administered in Mandarin.
Don’t worry bosses! If we don’t like the results, we’ll grade on a curve.