Native English-speaking third-graders pass STAAR reading test in Spanish

Published in The Dallas Morning News on Nov. 12, 2015

Arielle Silver, 9, said that Spanish often challenges her and stresses her out. But most of her family is trying to learn the language, which gives her an advantage over some of her peers, she said.

It also gave her confidence that she could pass an important state assessment test — in a language other than her native English.

Arielle is one of three third-graders at Hackberry Elementary School in Frisco who passed the STAAR reading test in Spanish. The trick is, they’re native English speakers enrolled in Little Elm ISD’s dual-language program.

“Sometimes I don’t even know the English word, but understand what the test means in Spanish,” Arielle said. “But sometimes I have to translate it into English before I can understand.”

Fourth-grade teacher Manuel Castillo said that out of the 35-student class, some native English-speaking students had developed significant Spanish-speaking abilities. So, he asked the parents of Caden Richardson, Mariam Jalloh and Arielle Silver if they could take the STAAR Spanish test, which is normally given to native Spanish speakers.

“We’re not throwing them into the water not knowing if they can swim,” Castillo said. “The test goes against district accountability ratings, so we have to make sure the kids will do well enough that they won’t hurt the reputation of the district.”

Ultimately, district officials were willing to take the risk.

“I wanted to see if they could perform in a stressful environment in their second language,” Castillo said. “They did really, really great. We’re proud of them.”

DeEtta Culbertson, information specialist with the Texas Education Agency, said native English speakers participating in dual-language programs can take the STAAR Spanish test if their school district’s Language Proficiency Assessment Committee determines that is the most appropriate test to see if they have mastered the grade-level content.

“Taking the Spanish STAAR would be a good measure of the non-ELL student’s ability to read and comprehend the Spanish language,” she said.

Culbertson also said there is no way to know whether the feat had been attempted elsewhere without contacting the Language Proficiency Assessment Committees at every school district in Texas.

“When school districts order the test, they don’t indicate if it was for a native Spanish speaker or not,” she said. “So it’s possible it’s been done before, because we have a ruling for it, but unlikely.”

Castillo said that, as far as Little Elm ISD knows, no other native English speakers have taken a state mandated test in their second language.

“To this day, I’m trying to find out of its been done before,” he said. “That way, we could compare data with those districts and have a conversation with them to see what they’re doing that’s working to get their results. We can help each other.”

The state already requires native Spanish speakers to take the math STAAR test in English, Castillo said. So, he hasn’t tried to encourage any of his native Spanish speaking students to take the STAAR reading test in English.

Each year, LEISD sends notice to parents of children entering kindergarten, asking them to enter their names into a lottery if they want their child to participate in the dual-language program. Parents are notified if their children are selected for the program.

Last year, the district had 340 students enrolled in the dual-language program offered at Hackberry and Oak Point elementary schools. The program, in its eighth year, aims to have all participants bilingual by the end of fifth grade. To do this, teachers pair a native Spanish speaker and a native English speaker to work on assignments together. The assigned partners change every six to nine weeks.

“If you see a partnership that’s not working properly, you want to change them so you can find better partners for everyone,” Castillo said. “They have to work a lot. It’s almost a gifted-and-talented program because they have to work in both languages in a day.”

During class, students receive half of their instruction in Spanish from one teacher and half in English from another.

Castillo teaches half the students science, social studies, reading and grammar in Spanish in the morning while Kimberly Northcutt teaches students reading, grammar and math in English. Students switch teachers halfway through the day.

“The main objective for them is to learn the material up to Texas standards,” Castillo said. “But I try to teach as much Spanish as I can because that’s why the kids are in the program.”

Castillo said that, until last year, teachers had no way of tracking how students were succeeding in their second language. Last year, dual-language teachers were required to grade every student in both languages for reading and grammar. Now, students essentially take the same tests twice, once in each language, giving teachers real data to see how much they are progressing.

“Hopefully, we can have more students, at least two more, take the test in Spanish this year,” Castillo said. “We’re tracking their progress throughout the year. If we see some alarms going off, we’ll pull them off the list. But the parents know we’re pushing them to take the test in Spanish.”

Mariam Jalloh, 9, said that she loves learning the language and studied every day to make sure she would pass the exam.

“I thought, ‘If I fail this, I don’t think I’m going to fourth grade,’” she said. “So, whenever I meet other kids outside of school that speak Spanish, I like to talk to them. If I get something wrong, it’s OK because I learn.”

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