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31 Oct 2013

Kenji Hakuta on Common Core Assessments

Summary by Elfrieda H. Hiebert

In that many English Language Learners (ELLs) are among the students in the lowest two quartiles on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, increased demands for text and task complexity within the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have particular consequences for this group of students. Dr. Kenji Hakuta is the nation’s expert in studying the relationship between students’ oral language and learning. He has been—and remains—one of the most well informed and vocal scholars and contributors to policies and conversations about the challenges and possibilities of schooling for ELs. Currently, he directs the Understanding Language Initiative at Stanford University. The Understanding Language aims to heighten educators’ knowledge of the role of language in the CCSS and Next Generation Science Standards. In particular, the Initiative aims to increase attention to the uniqueness of the language demands in each academic discipline.

Dr. Hakuta’s thesis in the presentation is that content acquisition—a goal of schooling (and highlighted within the CCSS)—is highly related to language proficiency in English. He demonstrates the critical nature of this relationship in his introduction, which consists of presenting a summary of several sets of data, all of which show a close relationship between how students perform on content-area assessments and their English language proficiency. Students who learn school content are the students who have a high level of proficiency in English.

Despite this close relationship between language and content in students’ learning, policies at the national level have often treated school programs for supporting students’ acquisition of English proficiency and their learning in content areas separately. For example, Title I programs have dealt with content-area remediation and instruction, while Title III programs have provided funding for ELL support. No Child Left Behind was an exception in that the legislation focused on the attainment of challenging academic content by ELLs. The new standards, Dr. Hakuta observes, raise the bar even higher for the learning of all students, including ELLs. No accommodations or modifications are suggested in the English Language Arts (ELA) standards themselves for ELLs. They are to be held to the same high standards as other students.

The higher standards have particular implications for ELLs, first, because of the greater emphasis on content and, second, because of the increased demands for language within content areas. Within the CCSS, language is no longer seen as separated from content, connected only by surface-level skills. Rather, language and content are viewed as integral to one another. Higher levels of classroom discourse need to occur across all subject areas, such as argumentation in social studies and the humanities. The shifts in mathematics and in science (Next Generation Science Standards) are especially demanding. In mathematics, students are expected to make conjectures and to build a logical progression of statements in exploring the truth of their conjectures. Next Generation Science Standards place a heavy premium on constructing explanations and in engaging in argument based on evidence.

These demands pose many challenges for ELLs that, Dr. Hakuta argues, can only be solved through collaborations. All participants in the educational enterprise need to be part of these collaborations. At the local level, these include students, families, teachers, and school and district leaders. Those at the state and federal level—state leaders, university and in-service instructors, test-makers, publishers, and federal leaders—need to collaborate with one another and with those at the local level. These collaborations need to address instructional practices, assessments, and materials and resources. Dr. Hakuta concludes by recognizing the challenges of the new standards as well as the opportunities that the new standards offer to ELLs.