Being Multilingual Is Not Cause for Intervention

Being Multilingual Is Not Cause for Intervention

Image credit: Aleksandr Ledogorov via Unsplash

By The Educator Collaborative Associate Member Beth Puma

The testing season window seems to be closing in the United States, Canada, and international schools around the world. No matter where you are, this period of time is stressful; whether you work in a district that drills and kills “test prep” or not, all educators want to see their students perform well. Even if you bring a criticality and cynicism to high states standardized testing, you might still secretly harbor a desire to see high growth and/or “achievement.” Of course, that’s not the only testing happening. ‘Tis the season for other end-of-year testing at school sites, including benchmarks, final exams, and so on.

As results trickle in, they impact so much. For some organizations, they impact school reports, teacher pay, and student retention. For others, this data will impact schedules, services, and opportunities for our learners in the name of being “data-informed”.  

For the purposes of this blog post, we will talk about multilingual learners and the story of this type of data sharing. Multilingual learners (MLLs) can be loosely defined as learners who speak multiple languages.  Some may fall under the umbrella of “services” as they acquire English. Others may not. Multilingual learners pull from a vast linguistic repertoire to make meaning of this dynamic, complex world.

You see, the story that “satellite” data (Safir & Dugan, 2021)–such as that garnered from high-stakes state testing and end of year literacy benchmarks–tells us about multilingual learners is not only an incomplete one; it is a story comprised of unreliable data. Yet too often, this type of data is used to inform very real services and opportunities for our MLLs. Which brings me to my core argument:

Being multilingual is not cause for intervention.

It is not cause for remediation.

It is not a reason to be pulled from general education classes.

It is not a reason to lose access to electives or to the opportunity to study another world language.

Yet these are the types of decisions that get made as a result of this type of data. Standardized tests (STAR, MAP, etc) are designed and aligned with state standards, which in theory–big eye roll here–are supposed to be designed with a blend of attention to developmental and college/career readiness. However, they are normed from a monolingual perspective. They are not measuring language proficiency (although they may be measuring language performance at a predetermined developmental level). Even the more personalized assessments (e.g., F&P Benchmark, DIBELS, DRA) are still created through a monolingual lens. Therefore, the data is misinformed about our multilingual learners. Yet, the ramifications are huge.

Multilingual learners are juggling the complexity and cognitive load of learning the skills and concepts related to content while simultaneously acquiring another language. However, because the “satellite” data we get from most standardized assessments are in English, we only get part of the story of their learning.

You see, you only learn to decode written language once. Everything else that happens is an aspect of language acquisition. All of the MLLs we serve already have vast repertoires of literacies. Some are valued by school systems; others are not. And many of the MLLs we serve already have print based literacies in another language. But because the tests we administer in the U.S. are largely in English, we are left to scramble to determine what our kids truly know and can do–that is, if we care to listen.

And here begins the vicious cycle. In dogmatically strict MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Support) models, supposed “baselines” are created using a screener. (Of course, what makes for an effective screener versus any assessment is all in the design. Not every assessment can qualify as a screener.) Many schools use screeners and other progress monitoring tools that do not truly assess language acquisitions (emphasis on the plural). They use screeners or diagnostic testing rooted in monolingual English literacy conceptions around comprehension, fluency, decoding, and the like. Our MLLS are then tossed into literacy intervention because they are flagged as “high-risk” according to these assessments. But again:

Being multilingual is not cause for intervention.

We need schools that are sites of multilingual ecosystems. We need schools where we can see–and tell the holistic story of–the interdependence of systems, mindsets, curriculum, instruction, assessment, and our students that impacts our day-to-day. We need schools where we “bilingual-fy” the universal design process. Like physical ecosystems, this means tending to the soil, the sun, and the water. Succeeding within the ecosystem of school is not an easy or quick “fix” (a term steeped in a medical and deficit approach) that consists of pulling MLLs from their core classrooms and sitting them in front of a “responsive” or “adaptive” literacy computer program (or even providing the “kinder, gentler” exclusion of an intervention block).

The word intervention is a noun. Where my morphology nerds at? It stems from the verb “to intervene.”  Can’t forget my nominalization nerds either!  Being multilingual is not something to intervene upon. It must be conceived of as a journey through a loving, nurturing, and joyful multilingual ecosystem.

Our multilingual students are not protagonists of the “story” that so much of our testing data tells us. They are human tapestries of languages, stories, cultural ways of being, and perspectives. It isn’t enough to simply “celebrate” this with well-intentioned “Food and Flag” days. We have to work to design a multilingual ecosystem where our MLLs are not “intervened upon,” but where they have an opportunity to thrive; academically, socially, emotionally, and linguistically. We have to disrupt any monolingual bias (Ardell, 2023) that looks at assessment data and makes programmatic decisions based on misconceptions. For that is the work before us in our path to linguistic equity; a path, as Freire & Horton (1990) remind us, that “we make by walking.”


References:

Ardell, L., PhD. (2023, July 13). Introducing: Disrupting the Monolingual Bias — Language Matters. Language Matters. https://www.languagematters.org/blog/introducing-disrupting-the-monolingual-bias

Freire, P. & Horton, M. & (1990). We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Temple University Press.

Safir, S., & Dugan, J. (2021). Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation. Corwin Press.

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