I had a great experience today with a student who has recently arrived in our country. The time I spent with her made me consider how assessments and test scores can overly influence our opinions of students, Especially if we don’t take the time to get to know the child behind the score.
“Gloria” (not her real name, just paying homage to my favourite sitcom, “Modern Family”) has recently arrived from South America. She knows enough English to talk to others and understand most instructions. The start of the school year brings with it a barrage of standardised
assessments to identify the needs of individual students. They serve a purpose in preparing personalised learning programs for children who need both intervention and extension. But raw numbers don’t tell us the full picture. Gloria is a classic example. She scored low in the standard spelling test administered by her classroom teacher. So did many others.
Because of the results, targeted spelling programs were developed to support these students beyond the main class spelling program. Gloria was included in these programs with support from teacher aides. Let me make it clear right here. Teacher aides are fantastic support in classroom. For children with learning difficulties, teacher aides are vital for them to survive the classroom struggle on a daily basis. But sometimes kids with low test scores don’t need teacher aides – they need teaching.
Gloria didn’t score low on the spelling test because of a learning difficulty. She didn’t score low because of a physical disorder or because she has emotional issues that have affected her concentration over the years. Gloria scored low because she speaks Spanish! She doesn’t need a teacher aide to sit with her and work through a worksheet of spelling words. She needs a teacher who has sat down with her, listened to her read words, watched her write words and recognized that her errors were based on the different sounds found in the Spanish language.
I had my first extended experience with Gloria by chance this week. The teacher aide who has been working with her was away and her teacher asked me to step in and take the group, as I was between jobs that morning. As soon as I was handed the spelling worksheet assigned for the week, which was addressing the ‘j’ sound (spelt g-,j-,-dge, -ge), my years of background knowledge in languages through applied linguistics training and Latin rang alarm bells in my head. This was going to be a big challenge for Gloria for one simple reason – j is not j in Spanish and the -dge grapheme doesn’t even exist. This needed to be addressed with Gloria, not because she was a bad speller, but because she had no experience with this spelling system.
While working with Gloria ( and the other two students who were more interested in what was happening at the other end of the building, hence their need for a teacher aide to keep them on task), I discovered a girl with a rich knowledge of her mother tongue’s spelling system. While still interacting with the other students equitably, I was drawn into deep conversations about the similarities of g in Spanish and English, depending on the vowel that followed. We had great dialogues about the different use of e and the end of Spanish words. We notice similarities in letter combinations between the equivalent words in each language like jirafa and giraffe. While reading words in the spelling list on the worksheet, I picked up other issues that were not spelling related but Spanish phonics related. It makes sense that Gloria can’t spell luggage because a Spanish speaker would pronounce it ‘loogage’. U makes one sound in Spanish, in English it makes 2, one of which doesn’t exist in Spanish.
Gloria knows a great deal about spelling conventions, but in Spanish. She doesn’t need a remedial spelling program; she needs an English enrichment program. She understood what we discussed during this lesson we had. The other two just chose some words to learn during the week that they will probably get correct in a test next week but not relate to other experiences of the ‘j’ sound in their writing. Students like Gloria need more than a test score to work them out – they need teachers to get to know them.
I’ve had the same experiences during the Mathematics interviews I’ve been conducting this term. The interviewees were selected based on low test scores. During the interviews, though, I found students with sophisticated mental computation strategies that, based on reading test scores, were having literacy issues not numeracy issues. For others, we discovered why they survived to a certain grade level at an acceptable standard then suddenly dropped alarmingly – they were completely reliant on counting by ones for everything.
Standardised testing and the resultant scores are good indicators for potential learning difficulties or strengths. But they’re no substitute for face to face interactions. And sometimes that one on one interaction needs an experienced hand to really pinpoint the need. I’m committed to working with Gloria as much as I can this year. If our chance meeting didn’t occur, she could have spent the year only working with a teacher aide group with students with learning difficulties. We can’t let the push for standardised testing, even at the diagnostic rather than school comparison level, blind us from the fact we need to get to know our students more intimately. We owe it to the Glorias in our classrooms.