Why early intervention matters
The keys to preventing and closing the achievement gap for English Learners
By Angel Barrett and Cynthia Castrellon | January | February 2021
Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of man, the balance wheel of social machinery.
— Horace Mann
Data is an integral part of the educational process, especially when closing the achievement gap. The spring 2019 California Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) scores for grades 3 through 12 exemplify the power of reclassification for student proficiency.
The percentage of all students who met or exceeded the standards in the English/language arts SBAC was 51.1 percent. When broken down further, 12.8 percent English Learners were proficient, and Reclassified ELs met or exceeded 60.1 percent.
In the Math SBAC, 39.7 percent of all students met or exceeded standards, while English Learners were proficient at a rate of 12.6 percent. Reclassified ELs met or exceeded standards by 43.1 percent.
Early intervention helps ensure students reclassify at an early level and establishes proficiency early in the child’s educational journey. The data used for early intervention drive instruction for teachers, as well as create a solid intervention/prevention program for targeted instruction. For example, in the Los Angeles Unified School District, a foundational skills test known as the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Literacy Kills helps select students based on beginning-of-the-year measures: letter name fluency, phoneme segmentation, nonsense word fluency, word reading knowledge and oral reading fluency. These measures are attained from DIBELS, which are used to monitor reading progress. It is an indicator of how students may perform in the later years.
Results count
Stagg Street Elementary School in LAUSD is a specific example of using “Response to Intervention” as “an instructional framework through which schools can provide early intervention for students experiencing academic and behavioral difficulties” (Hughes & Dexter, 2011). DIBELS data in kindergarten through second grade show an upward pattern in students meeting benchmark or advanced. From 2016 to 2017, there was a positive gain of 10 percent; from 2017 to 2018, there was a gain of 5 percent; and there was a 7 percent minimal loss between 2018 and 2019. During this time, the school site was going through a transitional phase to replace paraprofessionals who are integral to the program.
The Stagg Street Elementary end-of-year DIBELS Benchmark data indicate steady growth with the exception of all students in 2019, the year of the teachers’ strike. English Learner proficiency still grew minimally. This is the breakdown for all students who met benchmark at the end of the year: 73 percent in 2016; 83 percent in 2017; 88 percent in 2018; and 81 percent in 2019. When data are broken down by subgroup, EL’s benchmark scores in DIBELS are as follows: 64 percent in 2016; 73 percent in 2017; 75 percent in 2018; and 76 percent in 2019.
Disaggregated for English Learners, the data shows a growth of nine percentage points between 2016 and 2017, only one fewer percentage point than the growth for all students. In 2017 to 2018, there was a gain of 2 percent. In 2018 to 2019, there was a 1 percent increase compared to a loss of 7 percent for all students. This consistent growth from 2016 to the present in English Learners in DIBELS has helped the school reclassification rate to grow to 31 percent, exceeding the district goal.
Further disaggregation of the reclassification data shows that, for the last three years, all English Learners that begin in preschool or kindergarten at Stagg are reclassified by the end of second grade, unless a student is a newcomer to the country, has an identified disability that impacts reclassification or has arrived from another school in second grade or later.
Data for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium taken in grades 3 through 5 show that the reclassified students are performing better and also achieving proficiency at increased rates. However, there was a downward shift in the English Learner data. The EL population in 2018 and 2019 had an increase in the number of newcomers and students that did not start the EL program since kindergarten at our school. The district was also impacted by the United Teachers Los Angeles job actions and strike in January 2019. The principal was assigned to the school in October 2015, so data reflect the year before her arrival and subsequent years.
Stagg ELA SBAC shows the percentage of all students who met or exceeded standards: 42 percent in 2015, 53 percent in 2016, 61 percent in 2017, 63 percent in 2018, and 60 percent in 2019. When disaggregated by subgroups, ELs met or exceeded standards by 9 percent in 2015, 14 percent in 2016, 61 percent in 2017, 63 percent in 2018 and 60 percent in 2019. RFEP students meeting and exceeding standards were at 57 percent in 2015, 68 percent in 2016, 77 percent in 2017, 63 percent in 2018 and 56 percent in 2019.
The Math SBAC data shows that all students met or exceeded standards: 33 percent in 2015, 41 percent in 2016, 56 percent in 2017, 59 percent in 2018, and 46 percent in 2019. When disaggregated by subgroups, ELs met or exceeded standards 17 percent in 2015, 22 percent in 2016, 39 percent in 2017, 40 percent in 2018, and five percent in 2019. RFEP students meeting and exceeding were 39 percent in 2015, 41 percent in 2016, 59 percent in 2017, 55 percent in 2018 and 35 percent in 2019.
Program overview Providing differentiated targeted small group instruction is crucial in the primary grades. Stagg invests in an intervention/prevention teacher who is responsible for developing the intervention groups in collaboration with the teachers and also trains the paraprofessionals to work with small groups. In this way, the student/teacher ratio is reduced and allows for students to receive individualized attention.
Grade levels have a structured universal access time of approximately one hour. Based on assessment, the entire grade level is organized based on specific skill instruction. The general education teachers and intervention coordinator teach the specific foundational skills for a 10-day cycle of instruction. Concurrently, paraprofessionals review the skills in small groups of approximately four to six students of nearly homogenous groups in 15-minute rotations. In this manner, the students have multiple teachings focused on a specific foundational skill. Monitoring students’ progress every two to three weeks is integral to any program in which data drive the instructional cycles and small groups, as it is a way to not only monitor growth, but also to continuously change specific targeted groups. The paraprofessionals assist with this process by progress-monitoring that allows the grade level teachers time to focus on core instruction. Data are analyzed in professional learning communities to rearrange groups and focus on new skills or review skills. After we study the results, we determine whether the student needs to be in intervention for a longer duration of time or exited from the program.
Tier 1 instruction The principal presents “State of the School” to staff three times a year — at the beginning of the school year, mid-year and at the end of the year. The presentation aligns all Single Plan for Student Achievement goals with current and historical data including DIBELS, report cards, SBAC, ELPAC and the School Experience Survey. After reviewing the data, school level teams review the professional development and the classroom instruction components of the SPSA and present their grade-level findings to the entire staff. This knowledge helps the Instructional Leadership Council drive professional development and professional learning communities (grade level, EL and School for Advanced Studies).
Ongoing professional development is differentiated by grade level or need (i.e., early literacy skills or ELD) with the following guidelines from Hammond and Richardson (2009):
  • Deepens teachers’ knowledge of content and how to teach it to students.
  • Helps teachers understand how students learn specific content.
  • Provides opportunities for active, hands-on learning.
  • Enables teachers to acquire new knowledge, apply it to practice, and reflect on the results with colleagues.
  • Is part of a school reform effort that links curriculum, assessment, and standards to professional learning.
  • Is collaborative and collegial.
  • Is intensive and sustained over time.
The principal also provides feedback through regular classroom observations. She uses SIRI to dictate and sends an e-mail to the teacher and one to herself. The subject line is: Teacher Last Name, Observation (month/day/year). Feedback is based on specific areas of the Teaching and Learning Framework of the district such as the following: purpose of the lesson, routines, procedures and transitions, or asking and answering questions. This process enables regular feedback and to be able to reference prior feedback in coaching conversations and/or evaluations with the teacher (Barrett et al, 2016).
Classroom instruction is intentional and implements multiple models of instruction. Specific information on the amplification of key themes of the ELA framework in ELD can be found in the ELA/ELD framework Chapter 2 pp. 90-99.
Small Group Support with Paraprofessionals (Tier 2) Paraprofessionals play an integral role in the multi-tiered intervention program by providing support using standards-based activities such as:
  • The Florida Center for Reading Research Activities, which allow students to practice phonemic awareness and phonics using activity cards with pictures or spelling patterns, fluency practice, and sight word review;
  • Review of high-frequency words to reinforce automaticity;
  • Use of repeated readings, partner/choral reading, cold and warm reading (timed), poetry recitation and use of reader’s theatre to develop fluency;
  • Use benchmark-leveled books in small group instruction to review comprehension skills taught by the teacher;
  • Bi-weekly progress monitoring.
With the exception of one paraprofessional in the Intervention Lab, all paraprofessionals are assigned to student groups and work within the grade level classroom during universal access time.
Intervention Lab (Tier 3) In the Intervention Lab, the coordinator and a paraprofessional work with students who are performing far below benchmark. At any given time, the lab hosts three groups consisting of four to six students in each group. Each rotation is about 15 minutes long. The students receive 120 minutes of small group instruction a week. While the coordinator provides direct instruction focusing on phonemic awareness routines using the Heggerty program, the paraprofessional reviews sight words and plays the phonics and phonemic awareness interactive games from the Florida Center for Reading Research Activities. The third group works independently on Amplify Reading, a digital software that is adaptive and caters to the student’s results from the DIBELS assessment. Students who show limited progress in the given teaching cycle or progress monitoring data are recommended to the Student Support Progress Team.
Conclusion The best way to close an achievement gap is to prevent the gap from occurring in the first place. In the ELA/ELD framework, the state of California has provided a national model for instruction. Using professional development and immediate, relevant feedback to support teacher practice provides the groundwork for good Tier 1 instruction.
However, research shows a stark difference in long-term proficiency of students who reclassify and those who do not. Therefore, immediate support can provide equitable access to the curriculum for English Learners. Foundational skills help the students decode the material; coupled with the other four themes of the ELA/ELD framework, data shows reclassified English Learners demonstrate proficiency at high levels. Additionally, specific examples through vignettes of integrated ELD are provided in all of the frameworks except the first — math (2011).
Resources Barrett, A.J. (2016) “Immediate and Relevant Feedback,” Best Walkthrough Practices (2016). Multiple Authors. Mentoring Minds.
Darling-Hammond, L. and Richardson, N. (February, 2009). Research Review/Teaching Learning: What Matters? How Teachers Learn. Volume 6 Number 5, pp. 46-53. Retrieved from http://outlier.uchicago.edu/computerscience/OS4CS/landscapestudy/resources/Darling-Hammond-and-Richardson-2009.pdf
ELA/ELD Framework (2014). California Department of Education. Retrieved from: https://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/rl/cf/elaeldfrmwrksbeadopted.asp
Hughes, C. A., & Dexter, D. D. (2011). Response to Intervention: A Research-Based Summary. Theory Into Practice, 50(1), 4-11. doi:10.1080/00405841.2011.534909 Hughes, C.A., & Dexter, D. D. (2011). Response to Intervention: A Research-Based Summary.
Theory Into Practice, 50(1), 4-11. doi: 10.1080/00405841.2011.534909
Angel J. Barrett is the principal and Cynthia Castrellon is the intervention/prevention coordinator at Stagg Street Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
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