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110. Advocating for Change: Addressing the Impact of Access Testing on ELL Students with Special Guest, Mariel Norris
Episode 11019th January 2024 • Equipping ELLs • Beth Vaucher, ELL, ESL Teachers
00:00:00 00:30:25

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Teacher, are you navigating the challenges of ACCESS testing and misclassification issues with your ELLs?

Join host Beth Vaucher in this episode of Equipping ELLs as she engages in a compelling conversation with Mariel Norris, a seasoned ESL educator. Mariel shares her educational journey and discusses her impactful article, "How We Can Help Daniela," published in the Washington Monthly. Together, they unravel the challenges posed by ACCESS testing, shedding light on misclassification issues and the emotional toll it takes on our students. The episode delves into advocacy efforts in which teachers can engage, emphasizing the need for change in ESL education and testing criteria. If you're passionate about empowering multilingual learners and advocating for positive change in education, this episode provides valuable insights and inspiration!



Hey, Mariel, welcome to the show. I am so excited to have

you here today.

I'm so excited to be here.

Why don't we dive in and you share a little bit about your

educational background, your experience, what you're currently

doing today, because we have a lot to get into after that.

Sure. Yeah. So I got my bachelor's from Bard college, where I

majored in written arts in latin american and iberian studies, and

I also have a master's in education from Fitchburg State

University and also Massachusetts licensure in kindergarten

through 6th grade ESL. And I have a decade of teaching experience.

I taught in Spain right after college at two elementary schools,

and that's how I got interested in teaching ESL. And I've taught

all grade levels from kindergarten through adult, and I'm

currently teaching elementary school, which is sort of where I

found my niche and want to stay.

Amazing. Yeah. It usually takes one cultural experience abroad to

kind of make it, like, just your eyes open to this whole world and

the excitement that comes. So that's


Iberian studies. I would love to go deeper


but we don't time for that right now. But another time. That is

really cool. Awesome. Well, I came across your name from an

article as I was doing some research. This is going to be January

when this is going to be released, which in most states, well, at

least I think, 46 of them that are widow states. It is access

testing time, and the window usually runs from January to March.

So as I've been preparing different podcast episodes, I just

wanted to do a deeper dive into are some articles out there. What

are people's experience with access? I know inside my membership,

equipping know, just sharing a lot of the frustrations of our

teachers and what they're going through. And so I came across your

article that was published in the Washington Monthly titled how we

can help Daniela. And I was instantly intrigued. And I read your

article and it truly brought me to tears because in my mind came

so many of my own students who were like Daniela, and so many

stories from the teachers that are inside our membership who are

just having this frustration of these students who've really been

in the system for a long time. And this one test is really keeping

them from growing and from just thriving and being incredible

superheroes that are bilingual. It's really kind of creating this

really negative approach to them in their minds and in the

teachers minds, because they know they can succeed, they know they

can pass this test, but this test is keeping them in that system.

So unfortunately, there's not a lot of articles like yours that I

was coming across where it was just a real honest and really well

written article about your experience and then the research that

you've done around. Specifically, we did access testing. So let's

start there. Let's just start with kind of an overview of what

this testing is, what this looks like, because I know there are

some people who might be in states that don't do we to testing.

I'm sure it's similar to whatever standardized language test that

the school does administer, but there's also, we have

international listeners, so they might not have any idea about

what standardized testing looks like. So why don't you just start

there with a little bit of your research and findings into we to

access testing?

Yeah, sure. But first of all, I'm really glad the article

resonated with you, and I was hoping that a lot of teachers would

see it and feel empowered to start thinking about ways there could

be changes. And I had a similar experience with you that once it

was published in the summer, I did receive a lot of messages from

teachers like, I had the exact same experience. Danielle is just

like my students. Anyway, so to explain a little bit about access

and WiDA. So WiDA is the company that puts out access. And access

is an annual test for kindergarten through twelveth grader and

public schools throughout the US and the states and territories.

Um, it's been around for about 20 years, but it's gained momentum

more and more. At first it was only several states, and due to

legislation like no Child Left behind, and more recently, ESSa.

ESSA schools are relying on it, and it's in 41 states and

territories. The rest use other tests, but all states need to use

some sort of standardized test, as per ESSA, the legislation. So

WIDA also, in addition to putting out access every year, it also

has resources for teachers, basically delineating levels that

students are at between one and six, with one being a total

beginner and six on par with their general education peers. And

along with those levels, there's a list of what they call can do

descriptors that state what students should be able to do at each

level, which is helpful information, but sometimes it's not

accurate in terms of students might test all over the ballpark.

And so I've had students who will get a four one year, but then a

two the next year, and it's like, okay, where are they? So the way

it works is students whose families speak another language at home

are screened when they enter us schooling, regardless of what year

it is, whether anywhere between kindergarten and twelveth grade.

And so if they're in one of those 41 states that use WIDA, then

they would use the WIDA screener to determine whether or not they

should be receiving ELl services. And then every winter, usually

January, they would take the access test, and then that would

determine whether they've made progress and whether they're ready

to exit the ELl program in the following school year. So, yeah,

this process does vary a little bit state to state. States do have

discretion, but ESA does strongly encourage states to rely on a

standardized test score. And basically, as the one criterion of

whether students are able to be reclassified, other data from

teachers and administrators is not taken into account, generally

speaking. So that's the general background on access and WIDA.

That was awesome. Super helpful explanation of that. And I think,

you know what, there's so many frustrational points with this, but

to me, it just is so shocking that in our education system, one

test to be, there are some, there is some wiggle room here, but

most. The ESA criteria, the legislator is saying that you need to

have one test that helps you reclassify students. And then looking

at the testing as a whole, it's like they entered the school in

August, even if it's someone who's been there. But they had two

months off school. Now they're in school, and we all know back to

school. It takes a long time to get groups set up and to get the

schedule going. So that's really now we're moving into probably

end of September, October. By the time you actually have your

groups, you have things set up. You know how to support your

students. Then we have winter break. I know some of our members

inside of clubbing L's. They were starting to test in December

now. So it's like, so you maybe have two good months of working

with those students, and now we're already testing them to see if

they're ready to exit the just, it makes no sense to me of the

timing of things. I know New York goes a lot later. They wait, I

think, until May, which makes much more sense to me. So it's like

that alone is we're having this one criteria right in the middle

of the year. And tell me about your experience as a teacher,

because I know this is another huge frustrational piece for our

teachers of multilingual learners where all of a sudden maybe

you're starting to build that momentum. You have your schedule

finally set, you're working with your groups, you're pushing in,

you're pulling out. However your model is comes winter break, and

now you're being pulled out for a substantial amount of time to

run these tests. Give us a little insight into what that whole

beast looks like of having to do the test and all of that.

Yeah. So it's hugely time consuming and it's a logistical

nightmare. The administrator's manual of all the things you have

to keep track of is 90 pages long. So that gives you some idea.

The last time that we administrated it, it took a full month, the

whole month of January, even though we were giving it to multiple

groups of students each day. But there's all these rules, like

students have to do listening and reading those domains before

they can do speaking and writing. And then, so, of course, if

students are absent, which they often are, in January, everyone


sick, then they can't keep testing with their peers. And so you

have to test them individually. And of course, there are specific

clusters and tiers that can test together and can't test together.

So it ends up meaning that they lose a lot of time, both with ell

teachers because that's all we're doing and also in their other

classes. And we have to constantly email the general education

teachers to apologize and let them know yet again they're going to

miss class and then come up with a good testing location. So that

means maybe depending on the school, the gym is just being taken

over for that time. So it's really hard on everyone from, from us

as Yol teachers to all the other teachers. And of course, to the

students. And it's not just that it's costly in terms of time, but

it's not cheap in terms of money either. Since I live in

Massachusetts, I just looked into what it costs in Massachusetts.

But in:

101,000 students be tested. So that gives you some idea of the

toll that this test takes.

Yeah. And then not even counting the teacher time that you're now

removed from your regular lessons and supporting those students.

So really, for that whole month, your students are only being

supported by the homeroom teacher.

Yeah. Right. So they lose out on a lot of supports, and they're

behind on their classes because they're missing their other

classes as well.

It is a complicated, acrobatic work there that you're trying to do

to make that all work. And I know getting the students if they're

absent and following up with that, I mean, that is a lot on you.

So if there's homeroom teachers listening, be very gracious and

loving to your ESL teachers during testing months


January and February. And then really a lot of them move into

state testing come March. So if we really look at what our

education system is doing to our english language learners, it's a

tragedy. We're really not giving them the support they need, and

nobody shows their best work by a standardized test. So that

brings us into your article about Daniela. And Daniella is a

pseudonym for one of your students, but it really is a pseudonym

for so many students that we are seeing trapped in the system. So

why don't you just give us a quick overview? And for those who are

listening, we will post a link to the article in the show notes.

So please, I encourage you, go read the entire article because

it's so good. But just give us a brief overview of who this

student is and what her situation looked like.

Okay? Yeah. So Danielle is a pseudonym. When I was teaching her,

she was in 7th grade. She had moved to Boston from El Salvador

when she was in kindergarten. And you wouldn't be able to know

that she was an ell if you just heard her talking to her friends.

Because she's been in the US long enough. She doesn't have an

accent, she talks fluently, and her scores varied widely on

access. So some years it was very low, some years very high, or

not very high, but approaching almost. Yeah. So she's an example

of a student who maybe doesn't have a perfect command of all the

domains of English, like speaking. Well, she's good with speaking

and listening, but less so with reading and writing, and that's

due to a communication disability, so it's not. Due to her needing

more ell time. And she also does see a learning specialist for the

communication disability. But she needs to split her time between

the learning specialist and ell services. And that means that cuts

back on other time that she could spend with her peers in

electives or in the general education classroom. And it's a way of

making students like her feel like outsiders, even though they've

already been in the country for so long, but they're still being

told, like, you're deficient in English, you need to stay in this.

And just because a student doesn't have a perfect command of all

of the domains of English and all the intricacies of English

doesn't necessarily mean that ell is what they need. And access

fails to take into account these learning differences. So students

like her are misclassified, often due to access.

Yeah. And that's where anybody who's worked with Els for long

enough has probably had that issue arise. I know I was in many

meetings, RTI meetings and things like that, where it was always

that, is this a language? Is there something else going on here?

Is this a learning disability? I mean, there's so many different

facets that we have to take into play when we look at a student

and the support they need. And more often than not, though, I

mean, as a teacher, you kind of just have in your gut, like, I'm

giving them all the language support they need, and they're still

really struggling. And I don't think it's a language issue, but a

lot of times it's met with it's a language issue. And so they

continue on getting the support that they're really growing, and

they're doing great, especially these students who've been in the

country for multiple years. Their English is fluent. They speak

the same as their peers. And so then to find out that actually,

there is another underlying issue, but now we're splitting our

time. And now, because you can't pass this test, this one test,

and we all know one day you could have a bad day that impacts

those scores of your test, because, like


saying last year, your students might have been close to passing,

and, all right, we're almost there on maybe let's just boost up

that speaking. Let's practice the speaking. That's what's keeping

them from doing it. And then the following year, their scores

could be completely different. And so it's very hard as a teacher

to really know how to support those students when they're over the

place. And the test seems to be getting harder year after year

without really giving the teachers the support they need to boost

those students. And so I know a lot of teachers listening are

picturing those students that Daniela, that they have that has

that additional struggle of some sort. Maybe it's identified,

maybe it's not. But now they're being split in multiple different

ways. Or just those students who have been in the country for a

long time. They've been in this program since kindergarten, first

grade. They're now in 7th, 8th grade. And they're just tired of

it. They know. That they're not going to pass that test. I know

many students who I've talked to that just have that attitude of,

and you can't blame them. I mean, if they take that test year

after year and know, like, I'm not going to be able to pass it,

what are we sending? What message are we sending to our students?

So I would love for you to share a little bit more about that

misclassification. That happens a lot. I know that the, that's a

question that a lot of our teachers face. Is this something that

could be just a learning disability? Is this language? Can you

elaborate on that at all of how you have seen that process work

where they've been able to identify or any advice for our

listeners of how can they really advocate for those students to

help get the further support they need and maybe lessen the ELl

support if that is something that they're seeing is working well

and they don't need as much Ell support.

Yeah, I think generally a red flag to look out for is if it's been

maybe over four or five years and the student also does have a

learning disability or the teacher suspects that something else

could be interfering so they're able to do testing and in fact,

they do have a learning disability and it's been four or five

years and they haven't passed access. Maybe it's time to move on

and they don't need Ell services anymore. I know in some districts

it's okay, even if they haven't passed access, to not get all

those ELl services. But it depends. Some schools really hold

tightly to that access score and require the services every year.

So teachers should definitely be on the lookout for that and

advocate for those students to be able to move on if they think

they're ready. The more that teachers stand up and advocate for

things like this, the more there's going to be like a question

mark about this test and its validity. Teachers need to bring this

forth and not just endlessly be okay with, okay, the student again

and again is going to have to take this test because it's

demoralizing for students and we don't want them to be caught in

this stigmatizing situation and also miss out on classes that they

could benefit from. More student needing to be in ESL.

Yeah, absolutely. And that's why I loved coming across your

article, and I really hope that more and more people will bring up

this topic and really ask Wida and ask the states and ask the

districts and the know, what can we do to help our students really

grow, become bilingual, help them soar and not keep them in this

place where they feel like what? All that matters is the test



And that's a lot of the sentiment of many of our students,

especially as they get older. Now, there was a really interesting

quote that you put in your article from somebody from Education

Week article that you were quoting from that, and it said, the

expectation for english language learners to actually let me read

again. Okay, so you put in a quote from an education Week article

that said, the expectations for english language learners are

actually more arduous than what many monolingual students can

actually produce. Tons of monolingual students would be classified

as Ells overnight if access were administered to all. And I've

seen this myself. I've seen this in many groups. And each year I

was reading some articles from Wida themselves, and they were just

saying, oh, we're raising the rigor. The test is getting harder.

And you think, would a monolingual student really be able to

complete this successfully? I don't think they could. I think many

of them, I didn't even know as a first language english speaker

what all these different verb tenses were subjunctive. I didn't

even, we have that in English until I went and learned Spanish and

I realized, oh, we have this in English. But there's so many

things that the control of the language and the command of the

language, many native speakers don't have control over that. They

don't have the writing skills that are expected of these second

language students to pass this test. And so how do we raise the

flags on this? How do we ask the validity of this test? Is, are we

testing monolingual students to use as a comparison to see how are

they doing on this test? Or is raising the rigor really a way to

keep more people testing so there's more money made? I don't know.

I'm just asking questions. But what are your thoughts on that?

Yeah, you bring up so many great points, and I love the idea of,

I'm not sure if Wida does do a control with monolingual speakers,

but that would be a great idea to really see. Is this reasonable?

Are these expectations reasonable for ELls, especially because

these tests access is testing students across all the grade level



they're being tested in English of science, English of math,

English of social studies, and meanwhile, they're also learning

all the very basics of English language itself, from decoding to

the correct word order and sentences and the way emphasis changes

in meaning and colloquial phrases and all of that. And they're

still supposed to be at grade level, accessing English across

grade level. So some examples of things that they might need to do

on the test would be like in fourth grade, maybe writing a compare

and contrast. Essay or in second grade describing the steps in a

science experiment. And those are things that are very important,

but it's important to be aware of. Could their peers also do that?

Because otherwise it's really unfair. And their peers never

started out in El to begin with, so they don't have this hurdle

that they have to get past. So no one's seeing like, oh, do they

know this too? I mean, they're tested in other ways, but ell

students are also tested in those ways, too. So ells have an

additional hurdle that they need to get past.

That was a great explanation just how much we're putting on these

students. I mean, it's a lot. And I don't think that the benefit

is really there for them to feel like they're not making it. I'm

only important if I know English. I mean, that's the paradigm

shift we need to really focus on is how do we create schools and

communities that are assets based approach that we are really

creating and cultivating environments where they feel so welcomed

and accepted and excited and they're picking up English as they

continue to keep their native language, because that's the future.

We want bilingual, trilingual students to be part of our country,

our world, and that's what we should be aiming for. I cannot think

of any other country where you would go and be plopped in and then

have so many factors on how well you do and having so many tests.

Even if you comer and you enter before testing begins, you have to

test correct. I think there's like a certain cut off date, but

it's pretty close to when testing begins. So it's like, imagine

coming to a

new country and all of a sudden you have to sit down and take

this. It's crazy.

It is crazy. And I guess that's where I want to dive deeper on

this topic because I feel like there's a disconnect of what Wida

says is Best Practices for English language learners, and then

what this test does them seems to be the complete opposite of what

we know is best practice. So it's something that I can't seem to

let go. And I think that's the purpose. I think we as educators of

multilingual learners need to keep standing up and saying, this is

not right. And I love that. Writing an article, doing a podcast,

whatever it looks like, for those who are listening, let's

advocate for these students. So let's end on that. What do you

think? What can we do to keep advocating for our students,

especially those stuck in the system like Daniela. Those who've

been program for years and just one test. Is keeping them from

really moving on and finding a new way to approach education and

enjoy it and see them soar in different ways. What would you say?

Yeah, I think you touched well on writing an article, talking on a

podcast like this. Those are both extremely important, just in

general getting your voice out there, because the more people who

share their experiences, the more people will understand that this

isn't okay. And the people creating access aren't with ells on a

daily basis, seeing how it actually plays out. So it's really

important for everyone to speak up about this, whether it's to

administrators who can then relay the message on whether it's

getting directly in touch with the Department of Education,

whatever state you're in. Like I emailed my article to various

even though I live in Massachusetts, I emailed it to a bunch of

different state departments. And also another avenue that you can

take not only is to get in touch with the state department, to

question the rigidity around the criteria, but also to get in

touch with the makers of the test. So when I was writing my

article, I talked to the CEO, Tim Bowles, and he himself has put

out literature saying that this test should only be one of many

criteria to determine whether students should be ells. He didn't

intend for the test to be used this way, and he's very friendly

and approachable and loves talking about all things Wida and

access related. And his email and phone number are posted online

so you can easily find them. You could share with him improvements

that you think could be made to the test and the more people he

hears from. If we are relying on this test, at least it should be

a strong test. So there's two avenues. One is like pushing for the

test to not be the only criterion in determining placement. The

other is also improving the test itself. And in my article, I

listed tons of ways I could see the test being improved to make it

much more engaging, because obviously people do their best when

they're engaged. No one does well when a test is boring, and the

test is incredibly boring.


boring. So I listed a bunch of improvements, but that is not like

a comprehensive list because those are just my opinions. And I'm

sure tons of other teachers have tons of other ways that it could

also be improved. So the more we let Wida know the ways that it's

damaging and the ways it could be improved, the better, I think.


absolutely. And I love that. You reached out to him and that he

responded. I mean, that shows, that's why I don't think that it's

their evil and want to destroy the kids. I think they really are

passionate for multilingual learners. But I think with the

pressures of having some sort of one size fits all approach to our

El students when we know that it's not a one size fits all, that's

where we really, like you said, just advocating for even just

having that in the school that you're working in, if you can have

some teacher observations or another form of checking in and

saying, okay, is this student ready to go? Even if they're not

passing the access testing and knowing your state department and

what their standards are, how you go about that, that you can get

that because it was saying that with Essa, even that there is some

room where you can maybe apply for the ability to have your say

and your teacher approach or maybe using multiple different ways

to assess the student, not just having the access to test be the

only deciding factor. So those are some great options. And I think

exactly what you're saying. The more that we can spread the word,

get the word out, go right to Wida, go right to your state

department and really just continue to be those advocates that our

students really, we can see change in the hopefully. Well, Ariel

Mariel, let me say that again. Well, Mariel, thank you so much for

being on the show today. This just honestly makes me even more

inspired to keep raising those flags, keep finding more ways that

we can make a small impact. But we don't know how big that impact

can be by just know small things like this. So thank you so much

for your time. Thank you for the article that you wrote. Like I

said, we will post that in the show notes so that you all can read

it. And please, if you're listening and this was helpful, share

her article share this podcast let's just get these conversations

happening around. How can we make testing something better for

both the students and the teachers? Because the way that it's

burning teachers out is not okay either. All right, thanks so much

for being here, and hopefully we'll talk again soon.

Thank you so much, Beth, it was wonderful talking to you, and

thank you for doing your part and spreading the word.

Absolutely. Once the passion begins, it's hard to stop it, right?





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