Sophie Ramirez-Salas knows bilingual students are the future. As Texas gets more diverse, Spanish-speakers become increasingly valuable members of the state’s workforce.
Ramirez-Salas wants her Diamond Hill Elementary School fourth graders to one day meet the needs of that workforce — and so does Fort Worth ISD.
Amid declining testing scores, Fort Worth ISD is training teachers in new ways to make sure Spanish-speaking students are biliterate — able to read, write and speak in both Spanish and English.
“I’m having more kids want to be more dominant in English. They kind of want to leave Spanish behind,” Ramirez-Salas said. “But I think with this new program, it just gives them more of a chance to not stray away from the Spanish, because ultimately that’s their native language.”
In Fort Worth ISD, just over 1,200 students took the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness reading test in Spanish. The test is only available in Spanish to fourth and fifth graders.
For third grade Spanish speakers, the percentage of students reading at grade level dropped from 16% to 12%. Fifth grade math was the only category where scores increased, growing from 7% to 14%.
Ramirez-Salas had nine students take the test in Spanish. Overall, she said, she was happy with the results. All testers passed, except for a student who was only one question away from passing, she said.
“For my newcomers, I really emphasize on making sure they’re familiar with the test language,” Ramirez-Salas said. “Because it’s different. It’s very academic Spanish.”
Like the English test, the STAAR test underwent a restructuring last year, which meant more writing, open-ended questions and online administration. Maria Mendoza, executive director for emergent bilingual programs, expected a learning curve.
The shift meant teachers have to learn how new questions are asked and how to prepare for the new test, she said.
“Not just the test, but how are we supporting language acquisition? How are we supporting the environment,” Mendoza said. “When students come into the room, how do we relieve their stress? How do we make them feel welcome?”
Ramirez-Salas spent a lot of time working on writing in Spanish with her students last year because she wasn’t sure what to expect in the new writing portions of the test, she said. All of her students practiced writing an entire answer in both English and Spanish.
When Mendoza and her team started evaluating the emergent bilingual program in Fort Worth ISD, she knew she wanted to start as an observer. The district hired Mendoza in May.
She and her staff observed how students engaged in lessons, how they interacted with one another and the types of classroom environment teachers created, Mendoza said.
The tone of a classroom can ease the stress bilingual students often feel about school, she said. After initial observations, Mendoza and her team met to discuss what they saw and find a way to create a form to gather qualitative data for future observations.
In previous years, bilingual programs would spend entire days or weeks in one language for literacy. Last school year, the language of instruction during the students’ literacy block alternated on a weekly basis. Elementary schools now alternate the language by units of study rather than by week to ensure that students receive a cohesive learning experience for each unit.
Classroom languages often change throughout the day. In an effort to make sure students are biliterate, literacy blocks are divided into time spent working in Spanish and English.
Mendoza’s department’s goal is to make sure students are listening, speaking, reading, writing and thinking in both their first and second languages.
“It’s not just for the test. It’s a life skill,” she said.
TELPAS versus STAAR
The district is focusing on the Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System, which Mendoza described as the state standardized test to check how students are making progress in their English language acquisition.
Fort Worth ISD is using two strategies to perform well on the TELPAS, Mendoza said. First, is “habits of discussion,” which is taking the time to talk about what students are reading.
The second is “talk, read, write, talk.” Mendoza said teachers are encouraged to talk about a text with students, then they read it, write about it and talk about it again. The strategy helps with reading comprehension.
Those two strategies can be used across all content areas, Mendoza said.
“Especially with this demographic group, you can’t just lay this on the lap of the reading language arts teacher,” Mendoza said. “It is the collective responsibility of every teacher to support listening, speaking, reading, writing, and I add thinking.”
Because bilingual students can struggle with the academic language of testing, Ramirez-Salas said, so she uses the two strategies to help them understand the text and then workshop answers.
She and her students practice again and again. Ramirez-Salas has charts in her room to help students reference sentence structure. So far, she said, it’s working for her class.
When students take the English language proficiency assessment, they are not reading passages from a novel but passages about their core classes, Mendoza said.
The English language proficiency test also differs from the STAAR in that there’s a speaking portion. Ramirez-Salas said that is where she starts to see some of the students’ weaknesses. Even if they speak well in class, nervousness can mean they don’t do as well in a room full of their peers, she said.
She isn’t sure what the solution is — maybe testing in smaller groups, but for some kids shyness isn’t so easily abated. When Ramirez-Salas was taking bilingual tests to get her certification, she said she struggled with the speaking portion, too. She can’t imagine the pressure the students feel.
The district knows it has to improve scores, but Mendoza has higher goals than merely passing.
“Our academic performance needs to go up,” Mendoza said. “We don’t want to just pass or meet. But let’s look at the masters level. What are we doing to support students hitting the masters level? And it’s not just about the test, but it’s about the systems that we put in place so that all of our students can perform at high levels.”
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.