My letter to a 5th grader despondent over ELA score — Katie Lapham

ELL Testing

Hi Mr. Gates,

Were you a good test-taker? I wasn’t and neither is one of my 5th grade ELLs. In fact, he isn’t a true ELL but he hasn’t yet tested proficient on the NYSESLAT (you know about this standardized test from my previous letters to you), which is the only way out of ESL.

He is despondent after learning that his ELA cut score isn’t high enough for automatic promotion to the 6th grade. In my letter to him, I reveal my own struggles with standardized testing. -K

Dear ________,

I know you are feeling down about your ELA score. I have been in your shoes many times before, and know what a struggle it is – how so very hard it is – to lift yourself up from the crushing disappointment.

________, I was a terrible standardized test-taker. It was very hard for me to concentrate and focus on reading passages, especially when faced with so many long ones. The time limit also distracted me and made me nervous. I felt rushed. As a result, I would panic and freeze; my mind would go blank. I couldn’t seem to remember anything I had read and re-read. The information got mixed up in my head and the multiple choice answers confused me. It was such a painful experience for me that I simply selected the best-sounding answer just to be done with it. Is that what it’s like for you?

Have you heard of the SAT? It’s the test that high school kids take in order to get into college. My SAT scores in math and ELA were low. Even though I had a tutor and pushed myself to take the test five times, my scores never improved. In spite of this, I was accepted to every college I applied to, and I thrived as a history major. The universities saw that I was talented in other ways. After college I went on to get a Master’s degree in Latin American studies, but I went to England for this. I prefer their essay-based assessments. I never once had to take a multiple choice test over there.

Please know that you are not alone. We all demonstrate our intelligence and knowledge differently. I had the pleasure of teaching you in 2nd grade and again in 5th grade. Like me, you are a careful, thoughtful worker. You work best when you are given enough time to think about what you want to say. You are a strong writer and you have excellent ideas. You just need to complete your work in your own time.

I want you to know that in my free time I am working hard to speak out on behalf of learners like you and me. It’s not right that so much importance is placed on tests like the ELA and math, which don’t accurately reflect all that we have learned. Most – if not all – teachers believe this.

Hang in there. Ms. ________ and I believe in you. You have so much to contribute to class _______ and beyond. Feel free to reach out to me next year. I am here for you and will always be your advocate.

All best,
Ms. Lapham

Critical Classrooms, Critical Kids 


About Highlighting Members' Needs

We are running for the following Renton Education Association positions because we believe in the following planks: Becca Ritchie, Candidate for REA President, Nelsen Middle School, Computer Tech Susan DuFresne, Candidate for Primary Executive Board, Maplewood Heights Elementary, Integrated Kindergarten ✅  Demanding a healthy work-load/life balance. ✅  Bargaining competitive professional compensation. ✅  Challenging the status quo test culture with: Less is more! ✅  Emphasizing our professional expertise. ✅  Prioritizing equity and access for all. ✅  Utilizing 2-way 21st century communication tools. ✅  Acting in solidarity with all unions. ✅  Supporting ALL members. ✅   Implementing developmentally appropriate K-3 curriculum/assessment.
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2 Responses to My letter to a 5th grader despondent over ELA score — Katie Lapham

  1. lellingw says:

    I don’t know if the NYSESLAT is a very good measure of an ESOL student but it takes 8-10 years in a monolingual setting on average to get to the 50% in a test of reading comprehension and I don’t know of any state that allows a student to take ESOL long enough to get that far. NYS used to allow students to get to the 44% on a test of reading comprehension several years ago but did away with that requirement when they created the NYSELAT which I believe was a lower reading comprehension standard, not a higher one. To release a child before the child gets to the 50% basically ends with the student in the lower 50% of their grade level and receiving remedial help in school such as AIS, reading or sometimes ending up in special education. Always side with language acquisition assistance than release the child to a general classroom unassisted. English language proficiency is not a reason to ever retain a student in a grade, it will only prevent the child’s development in language and in school, They won’t be exposed to new experiences and age appropriate development. The child will have their affective filler raised and stress inhibits learning. Retention really has no business being in school, there is 100 years of research against it, that includes keeping 5 years olds back in Kindergarten. No one ever forgets being retained and the research supports its harm, there is no research that finds clear benefits and it is unclear why education continues to use it. I hear you about stress, stress inhibits language acquisition and learning in every subject. There needs to be a meaning for assessment and a reasonalbe outcome. In ESOL, studies are clear that error correction and grammar instruction has little effect on the acquisition of English and that students learn from listening to the language and reading at a comprehensible level. There is no short cut and it can only be delayed not speeded up by inappropriate instruction. The idea of pre-test, post-test is blatantly based on error correction and not acquisition. It seems that education is falling backwards into the behaviorist ideas of the 20s-50s that caused so many unpleasant schooling experiences. Yes, this is being promoted by Bill Gates and other billionaires to make students into fearful drones and educators to teach badly. The SAT only purports to predict success in the 1st year of college and is most closely connected to family income. Not all colleges take those scores and plenty want to see thinking diverse kids. No need to take the SAT more than once, twice is ok if you really want to but scores rarely do go up and why bother. As you mention Katie, you did well in college and so can they, but retention is a huge danger, If a child is retained rather than promoted, the danger of not graduating goes up precipitously. A second year can seal it. A third year is final. It would be nice to go back to the years when students took a placement test for listening/speaking and later a reading comprehension test. The kids before NCLB didn’t have to take a standardized test in content or English geared for nonESOL students until their reading was at the 33% on a test of reading comprehension or 5 years in school in this country. More appropriate but still not quite enough for a state that has always said 3 years for ESOL students. It should be 6.

  2. Jeffrey says:

    Standardized tests serve the purpose to the test giver and the test maker, not the student. In many/most situations in life where a problem has to be solved there are several options from which to choose. That sounds like a multiple choice test, but don’t leap to that conclusion just yet. Many times there are more than one right answer, and just as important as the answer is the justification of the thinking behind the chosen answer. Try to assess that type of thinking on a standardized test. You cannot.

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