What Do We Do if We Suspect That Our English Learners May Not Pass Standardized Assessments?

by Carol Salva

“It’s easy to say ‘Don’t give up.’ But you don’t know how the person feels when the failure happens to them.”

Emily Francis

Some of your English learners will not pass their standardized assessments this year. How are you supporting them for this reality? Here are my top tips for helping these students keep moving toward their goals.

Keep a Growth Mindset

Our bar for academic achievement should remain high for our English learners no matter where these students are on their learning journeys. Students who lack proficiency in English and/or lack the academic knowledge to reach mastery in their grade level classes are not to be pitied. We can’t give up hope on these students, because the reality is that they can be academically successful. Their timeline may be different than other students their age, but language is not a cognitive delay issue, nor is missing years of formal schooling. These are “lack of opportunity” issues. We must show students what is possible beyond this school year and encourage them to learn as much as they can so they are taking steps toward their life goals. In alignment with the work of Carol Dweck, we need to help the students believe that their abilities can improve. And that starts with believing in them ourselves.

4 Essential Messages_FB

What Is the Plan?

Make sure the students and their families know “the plan.” The fact that they know there is a plan is as important, maybe more important, than the details of the plan. The plan may be the same for SIFE as it is for any high school student. For example, the plan may be that the students have an opportunity to retake classes and state assessments until they are successful. They are able to do that until they are 21 years old. At that time, they can work with a community partner to continue studying until they earn an equivalency degree. Or you may have a plan that offers more intensive instruction for students who are missing years of education or are new to English. Regardless of what the plan is, it only useful if the students are aware of the plan and don’t just drop out before they fully understand how they can eventually be successful.  

Set long-term goals with them. Help them look beyond the short-term measurements. The standardized test isn’t the finish line.  

Prepare Your Students

The students need to realize that they must master content that usually takes over a decade of learning to acquire. Focus on how much they are learning. Set long-term goals with them. Help them look beyond the short-term measurements. The standardized test isn’t the finish line.

  • It is critical to council your newcomers and their families on how a person improves their literacy. We should not expect language learners to close their own gaps. But it is worth taking the time to show them what free resources are available to help them gain literacy and skills in math, science, social studies, etc. Our English learners can take ownership of their own learning when they are empowered with this knowledge. Free websites such as Khan Academy and NewsInLevels can make a huge difference to students who would like to accelerate their acquisition of language and content learning.
  • For those in the U.S. and parts of Canada, the United Way Helpline at 2-1-1, offers information about local and national health and human services programs. Operators connect families to services ranging from ESL classes to GED (graduation equivalency degree) classes to health care and more
  • While our community partners are vital for our families, I recommend counseling families and students to delay GED classes until public high school is no longer an option. For example, if I receive a 19 year old student with limited education and/or English proficiency, I want them to know that the services available for them are best after they age out of the public school system. Not now. That child is entitled to two years of free public education, and we can build a lot of language and literacy in those two years. Our classrooms should be a step toward their goals no matter how close they are to aging out.

Show Them Other People Who Overcame Similar Challenges

Stories of tenacity and perseverance are important for our students to see. Our students who miss years of formal education must understand what they are able to do with a growth mindset. But these messages must be balanced with a healthy dose of sheltered instruction. As educators we must create inclusive, language-rich environments with lots of comprehensible input so that the burden is not resting on the child.

Here are a few stories of perseverance I have shared with my students:

  • Francisco Jiménez is a professor at Santa Clara University and an author. He was also deported with his family at one time, struggled as a child learning English in U.S. classrooms, and missed months of schooling each year to work in fields as a migrant farm worker. Jimenez has written more than one book that can inspire English learners, and all students, to aim high and use education as a way to transform one’s life. This NBC news article is a great place to start:

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  • Emily Francis, is a Fab 5 Teaching Channel Teacher. She is a high school educator and the recipient of many accolades for her teaching of English learners and contributions to the field. She was recently on the Ellen Show to discuss her journey. In learning about Emily’s journey, your students will see that she arrived in the U.S. as a non-English speaker and started high school with a sixth grade education from Guatemala. I used her story as part of my curriculum for two years, and it has been one of the most powerful tools I have in my toolbelt.

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  • Kamal is a refugee who came to the U.S. in eighth grade with very little formal education and no English listening comprehension, speaking, reading, or writing skills. He spent one year in a regular middle school where he was unsuccessful at any state assessments. He entered high school and failed his state assessment for algebra more than one time. Kamal came to the U.S. from traumatic circumstances, and he still does not read or write in his native language of Arabic. He is attending a comprehensive high school and takes advantage of tutorials, clubs, and other supports that are available to all students.  Kamal has faced many challenges, but he recently passed his state assessment for algebra and is working hard to master more content from other classes. Please share this video with your students so they see the mindset this student has and how it is propelling him toward his goals.
  • This padlet also offers more stories we can use to inspire our students who are overcoming challenges of gaining literacy and language.  

If you get a chance to attend a Seidlitz Education training, you might hear us cite John Seidlitz from Sheltered Instruction in Texas:

Four Essential Messages to Send to Our Students:

  1. You are important
  2. What we are learning is important.
  3. You can do it.
  4. We will not give up on you.

Let’s make sure these students feel important and show them that their learning is important. They should realize that their road may include retakes and possibly more time in high school than other students.  Our job is to inspire them to do their best, to learn as much as they can, and above all, to keep moving forward.


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