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Language Learning

Measuring Success in Dual Language Programs

So your child is enrolled in a dual language program, but how do you know if it’s working? One of the most common questions I’ve heard from parents new to dual language/immersion (DL/I) education is, “But I don’t speak Spanish/Chinese. How will I help my child or know how they are doing?” If you have thought the same thing, you are not alone—and it’s a great question!

Most DL/I programs have three main goals:

    1. Increased academic achievement across all subjects
    2. Increased cultural competency due to the natural connection between foreign languages and other cultures
    3. Bilingualism and biliteracy in the target language (for Participate Learning partners, either Spanish or Mandarin Chinese)

Academic achievement

Of these benefits, academic achievement is probably the easiest to measure. If you have a student in 3rd grade or higher, they have likely taken some type of standardized end-of-grade test. In North Carolina, this would be the EOG, although it’s common for different states to have their own version of these tests. From an individual perspective, you might measure your dual language program’s success by whether or not your child passes this assessment or how well they perform. From a school, district, or state level, schools might assess their dual language program’s success by comparing how well the students in dual language classes perform on end-of-grade assessments versus their non-dual language peers.

Inter-school comparison is one of the most widely used success metrics for dual language programs because it measures “apples to apples”; it wouldn’t be fair to compare student results from the highest and lowest schools within a district. For example, if 87% of dual language students pass the 3rd-grade math EOG compared to 90% of non-dual language students in the same school, that specific program probably wouldn’t be considered very successful in increasing academic achievement. However, if 87% of dual language students passed the EOG compared to 65% of non-dual language students, that’s a great measure of success! Schools and districts sometimes also compare these numbers to state averages for a more “overall” approach to see how dual language students track compared to the entire state.

Cultural competency

Cultural competency is, honestly, hard to measure. Schools implement cultural competency measures in many different ways, such as through 21st-century skills or through future leader programs. Furthermore, the outcomes of increased intercultural competency can look like a lot of different things: maybe it’s greater empathy, maybe it’s better qualifications for a future job that requires international travel, or perhaps it’s more interest in and understanding of global issues. Because this looks so different from student to student, it’s challenging to definitively measure the impact that dual language has on cultural competency. That said, just because it’s difficult to measure doesn’t mean it isn’t a valuable outcome. For example, check out this EdWeek article by a winner of the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching.

Bilingualism and biliteracy

Now, let’s dig into our final measure of success for dual language programs: bilingualism and biliteracy. If you do not already speak both English and the target language (Spanish or Chinese), it can be challenging to know how well your student is doing. Luckily, from an academic perspective, this is a relatively easy outcome to measure.

Performance and proficiency assessments for language learners

When learning a language, students combine knowledge of new vocabulary, the grammar of the new language, and the various functions of the language (such as asking a question, making statements of fact, expressing opinions, etc.) to communicate. Many dual language programs build assessments for their students that test both language skills—the vocabulary, grammar, and functions mentioned above—and content knowledge. After all, nobody wants to over-test students, especially when you can often accomplish everything you’re trying to measure in one assessment.

That said, it does make sense at a few points within a student’s dual language experience to assess their language skills without worry that the results will be impacted by content-specific knowledge. Having a language-specific assessment can give teachers valuable information about the skills students are strong in and the skills that need additional development.

Within the field of language-specific assessments, there are two broad types: performance assessments and proficiency assessments. Performance assessments measure mastery of specific language skills. For example, a performance assessment could test a student’s knowledge of a set of vocabulary words or the ability to use the correct tense of a verb. On the other hand, proficiency assessments focus less on whether a student performed a skill flawlessly and more on how well a student could use that skill in real-world situations.

For example, if you are at school learning how to order off of a simple menu, you might give a practice order of “Me gustaria un helado” (I would like an ice cream), and your order will be grammatically correct within your practiced, limited context (performance ✓). If you needed to perform the same skill on vacation in a Spanish-speaking country, you might want to order food that you don’t know the exact vocabulary for, such as “Me gustaria el plato de arroz con mariscos,” and, if you are in Spain, your host will probably know that you want paella (proficiency ✓).

So which is better?

Both are important! Knowing the basics of grammar will help you communicate simple things such as, “Hello, how are you?”, “I love ice cream.”, and “Where is the bathroom?” Developing a more complex understanding of a language makes advanced tasks more manageable, like telling stories, expressing opinions, and using formal language (like writing a resume).

Teachers are usually able to incorporate performance assessments throughout the school year, while Participate Learning provides externally validated proficiency assessments at three points in a student’s dual language career: at 2nd**, 5th, and 8th grade. These grade levels align with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s Dual Language/Immersion Exit Proficiency expectations (see page 8). The external assessment that we currently use to measure student proficiency is the ACTFL Assessment of Performance toward Proficiency in Languages, also known as the AAPPL.
**2nd grade testing is currently optional and was introduced in 2020.

While you’re welcome to visit the AAPPL website and learn more now, we’ll also be publishing another blog post soon with more information about the AAPPL, how it works, what it measures, and how the results can be used. Stay tuned!

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