Marybelle Marrero Colon Sheds Light on Uplifting English Learners with Disabilities

Marybelle Marrero Colon, from the Center for Applied Linguistics, offers a valuable perspective on identifying learning disabilities in English learners while leaning into her own journey to share insight and perspective for students walking through the identification process. Learn about the significance of comprehensive education, precise evaluations, and personalized assistance for multilingual students. Marybelle compels us to champion equitable practices in both bilingual and special education.

Listen in your favorite podcast provider

Marybelle Marrero Colon: [00:00:00] We asked teachers in the general education classroom or the tier one classroom as well. It’s being called, to work with students who have differences. There are differences in language, differences in learning. But we don’t train them to work with the students. I was a teacher for a good 15 years before I knew what scaffolding was.

I didn’t know how to scaffold. I didn’t know how to differentiate. I just did what I thought was going to work with the kids. We need thorough training. We need, teachers to have access to the research, but not just to have access to the research, but how to implement the research. 

Justin Hewett: Hey, everybody. Welcome to the ML chat podcast.

My name is Justin Hewett. I am your host here with my cohost, Mandi Morris. And we just had the best conversation with Marybelle Marrero Colon from the Center for Applied Linguistics. Mandi, what a great [00:01:00] conversation. 

Mandi Morris: Such a great conversation. If you have been asking questions about how to properly think about identification for students who are English learners, this is a podcast to start going a little bit deeper, broaden your thinking.

It was really a wonderful opportunity to learn from Marybelle. 

Justin Hewett: Yeah, I learned a lot. I couldn’t believe how different it was from state to state as far as the number of English learners who are being identified with a learning disability. She mentioned that, Gosh, on the one hand, you’ve got in California, one in four English learners.

Is identified with a learning disability and is twice exceptional. And then in Delaware, you’ve got one in 10, right? 10 percent are, are duly identified. And it was just interesting to really understand she’s such an expert in this field and in this space. And I loved how she told us her story of growing up as an English learner with a learning disability, but not having that learning disability.

[00:02:00] Actually identified until she was 25 years old in the middle of working on her master’s degree. Are you kidding me? What an experience and what a story. 

Mandi Morris: Yes. And how her identification empowered her and really was a catalyst in her own career and journey. It was really incredible to hear her story. I agree.

It just, it brought all of her experience together and gave it a new light. 

Justin Hewett: Yeah. I think the word that comes to mind that she experienced in that moment was that she was liberated. And it explains why as an advocate for her students through the years that she really advocated for her students and wanted them to understand if an English learner, if anybody had a learning disability, she wanted them to understand what that was.

And to talk about it with them. And I guess that doesn’t happen very often, right? A lot of times students go to these different, they get received different services and that are custom for them based on their IEP, but they’re not actually told why they’re receiving these per [00:03:00] se. And so I love that she’s, she’s really helping these students understand their situation that much more.

So that way they can. We use these specialized services to make the progress they want to and need to make. Anyways, that just really stuck out to me. 

Mandi Morris: Absolutely. People are going to enjoy this episode today. 

Justin Hewett: All right, let’s jump in with Marybelle. Enjoy this conversation. Marybelle is the associate director of professional development at the center for applied linguistics.

In her 37 years in education, she has been an inclusion specialist, program Administrator and professional developer. Marybelle has acquired experience within the fields of ESL, bilingual education, bilingual special education instruction and evaluation, content area instruction, and professional development.

In her current role, she provides coaching, workshops, and presentations for schools, districts, and national conferences. Marybelle has a BA in psychology and [00:04:00] Spanish language and literature. An MA in bilingual special education and an MS in administration and supervision with a specialty in professional development.

Marybelle, we are so excited to have you on the ML chat podcast. Welcome. 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here and I’m honored that. You invited me. There’s a lot of great podcasts that I’ve listened to because I’m one of your subscribers. And so when the opportunity came up, I was thrilled to be part of it. So thank you so much for having me.

Justin Hewett: Oh, thank you. We’re so glad you’re here. We we’ve had some fun conversations with Marya and Kia from the center of applied. Linguistics, and you might remember some of those conversations, friends, as you’ve tuned in and listened in. This is a continuation of that theme and that conversation, but we’re really excited for where we’re going to be able to take this.

Marybelle is definitely an expert in a number of areas of education, especially in the area of [00:05:00] our students who are twice exceptional. As my friend, Dr. Mia Allen might, might say, right, students who are duly coded, who might be learning English as a second language and also have a learning disability, right, of some sort.

And so we’re excited to jump in and have this conversation with you and learn from you. I think that there’s a number of things around how to best serve students, the over identification or under identification, and there’s just all of these different conversations that. Frankly don’t happen enough. And so we’re excited to have you here to talk through that and, and, and learn from you in that regard, but before that, we want to learn more about your heritage.

Marybelle, tell us about you. Tell us about where you come from. I know you have a rich heritage and we’d love to learn a little bit more about that and about your family, maybe coming to the United States and you’re growing up. 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: Thank you. Yeah. My heritage is pretty long. My family has really paid attention to where.

We came from. So I had a [00:06:00] great grandmother who I loved dearly. She actually came to the United States, not to the United States or Puerto Rico from the Canary Islands in 1876. She was born 1876, came at the age of 13 to get married, and she brought a very rich heritage and a passion for family. I’m one of 81 cousins.

On that side of the family. She made sure that we all knew like our complete family names. It was something that was drilled into us. 

Justin Hewett: That is a prolific family. 81 cousins. 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: First cousins. Then. The second and third cousins are there and they’re still growing. 

Justin Hewett: Wow. And, and, and so she had this desire for everyone to know all of your family names, Marybelle, you told us before we started with the podcast, will you tell us your whole name?

Marybelle Marrero Colon: The full name going back in history is Marybelle Barbara. Marrero, Colon, [00:07:00] Sanchez, Melende, Adame, Martinez, Sotomayor, Fierro. The way that works in the family is you do, going backwards, is you start with dad’s side of the family, then mom, then dad, then mom, and you go back several generations until yeah, the last person who it was on the side of the family.

So there’s about 150 years there. 

Justin Hewett: That is so cool. I’ve got to figure out how to do that with my name. I want to go back and figure that. That is so cool. I love that. 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: We figured out my husband’s by actually doing his family tree. So we started with the family tree and things that he remembered and got to love ancestry.

com for finding out these things. He only knew a couple of generations. So I kept digging until I got more. 

Justin Hewett: And was that your great grandmother that went to Puerto Rico? 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: She came over from the Canary Islands on a steamship. To get married in the 1800s [00:08:00] before the Spanish American war. So she actually lived until 1976.

So she saw every war between the Spanish American war and Vietnam. 

Justin Hewett: Did she celebrate her one hundredth birthday? 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: We didn’t get there. We just missed it by, I think, a few weeks. 

Justin Hewett: Oh my goodness. 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: We just missed it. But, we celebrate it every day. Because she always said that you have to celebrate each day. And when she passed, 99?

She was 99, almost 100. She was still raising children. She had three Three teenagers in her house that she was raising. 

Justin Hewett: That’s amazing. 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: So that was crazy. 

So there is that strong Puerto Rican heritage. My parents came over in the 1950s. They met, got married, had me right away. And my dad came at the end of Operation Bootstrap.

And so there weren’t any jobs. And so. They worked really hard. They [00:09:00] started in factories, then opened up their own businesses. My parents were in dry cleaning and after a while they started flipping dry cleaning stores. And when, once they got in up and running and looking really great, they would sell them and go on to the next one.

And they made sure that myself and my brother got all the education possible. But one of the things that started me. In working with bilingual special education is the fact that I was one of the kids who fell through the cracks. My parents were told that I had learning problems because we spoke two languages at home.

And that’s not true because at the age of 25, I was finally diagnosed with being dyscalculic, which is dyslexia with numbers and numbers processing. 

Justin Hewett: And do you say that is that dyscalculic? Will you say it again? 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: It’s dyscalculia. So I say dyscalculic as an adjective. 

Mandi Morris: Marybelle, thinking back, I’m imagining your parents [00:10:00] working really hard and trying to flip dry cleaners and make a life for themselves and for their children.

How do you remember your parents processing that information? And what kind of conversations were you maybe having at home with your parents around something like that? school and around how you were feeling. What was that like for you then? I believe you said you were living in New York at the time.

Marybelle Marrero Colon: Yep. And we didn’t really discuss it. My parents worked 12, 13 hours a day. My father, and I also lived out of district because my father didn’t want me to go to inner city schools. So he would literally drive me every morning to another district, a more middle class district. Then he would pick me up in the afternoons.

So we. PriMaryly worked on survival skills in my early years. Just getting through the day, getting the work done. My parents weren’t the ones who went on school trips with the schools or came around to be the classroom mother. There was no time [00:11:00] for that. When my parents were told I had learning problems, because of the language, that was the only time my father ever talked back to a teacher and told them that, no.

That they weren’t going to limit the amount of Spanish at home. On the contrary, my father doubled it up and made sure I started reading in Spanish. My father never really learned English. His English was very limited. And so Spanish was the primary language at home. And when I say primary in just not just speaking, but in reading.

Justin Hewett: I love hearing this. I love hearing this because I feel like during that time, a lot of families lost some of their heritage and they went all English and I love the courage that your dad exemplified here that no, we’re not forgetting our language. We’re not forgetting our language and heritage are so closely intertwined.

And so that is great. Really cool. I can tell how brave your parents were. Anyways, coming, moving to New York and then they’re not just [00:12:00] like fixing up a dry cleaner and then appreciating it. They’re flipping it to go get another one or a laundromat and do another one and clean that one up and do it again.

They got comfortable taking risks that they probably had built up a lot of confidence to understand what real risk was and what it meant to be brave and be courageous in those kinds of moments. 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: Especially my father, because my father nowadays would be identified as being slife. Student with limited or interrupted formal education.

He never went to school past the primary year. So he didn’t know the language, he hadn’t had schooling, so he had to really work through oral literacy, and very much thinking things through and speaking them through. And he was a walking calculator as far as I was concerned, because his math was actually way better than mine.

But my parents weren’t told that I had a learning disability. I was actually tested without parental consent. And I [00:13:00] actually went in the fifth grade to a resource room for a year without parental consent. They thought I was just being pulled out for a little tutoring. And actually they did me a great favor.

That year was wonderful because I received a lot of assistance, but my parents weren’t asked their permission for it. And so it was a difficult time school wise, cause I always knew something was wrong, but I thought it was me. I thought there was something really wrong with me. It was a hard time and I wasn’t identified until I was in graduate school.

And it’s really actually a funny story because I was identified by one of my professors because I was failing Intro to Learning Disabilities. And she pulled me aside, Do you know you have a learning disability? And the first words out of my mouth were, Oh my God, I’m not stupid. And that explained why I connected better with my students than I did with my colleagues.

And so that’s when I really [00:14:00] started learning about assessment. I was an ed evaluator for New York City Public Schools where I did bilingual assessments for special education. And so it was really an interesting journey personally. And I remember going home and saying to my parents, why didn’t you tell me?

And they’re like, we had no idea. So it was actually harder for them to accept than it was for me. For me, it was a relief. 

Justin Hewett: Yeah. To some degree for you. I’m sure it was like a, I knew there was something right. It was almost like you understood yourself better. I sometimes we’ll take these personality tests or something like that.

And if you struggle with something or you’re really good at something and, but maybe you haven’t identified it necessarily. And then you read it in this assessment and you go, Oh my gosh, yes, that is exactly who I am and I can imagine it was like that, but like times 10. 

Mandi Morris: Mary. I’m curious. You had this experience as an adult and not a child where in some ways you felt liberated by [00:15:00] information.

You had a name, you had a thing that you could go and research and look up and learn about to understand yourself better. How has that informed you over the years as an educator and how you talk to students and their parents? And I just wonder what your perspective is when students receive that information.

In middle school, say, or in fourth or fifth grade and what’s your perspective from your experience and then being an educator and being on the other side of that? 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: It’s really difficult because when I was tested, I was actually tested on evaluations that I administered to other students. So it’s really difficult situation to be on the other end.

So part of it is making students comfortable with the evaluation process. Because a lot of parents, especially if you come from a culture that doesn’t accept the idea of a disability. Other than physical. It’s really difficult conversation, but [00:16:00] it gives hope. One of the things we don’t tend to tell children that they have a disability.

We don’t tell them why they’re receiving special education services. A lot of times the kids go through the entire process. They’re either placed in another program or they’re placed getting assistance and they don’t know why. I remember. Telling a student that, because she said, why am I taking these classes?

I’m like, this is for your learning disability. She had no idea. No one ever told her. We spent the entire afternoon instead of going through. Her IEP and planning. We spent the entire afternoon with her crying, but it was really cool to be able to tell her, but don’t worry about it because this is not a death sentence, which a lot of people believe it is because, Oh, I’m not going to go anywhere.

I’m not going to go to college. I had a bachelor’s and was half through a master’s. when I was told that I had a disability, when I figured it out. So that doesn’t [00:17:00] mean that you can’t go forward, that you can’t find a way to move forward and get training or get assistance or have a really good job. It doesn’t mean you’re dumb or stupid, which is what a lot of our students believe.

There was always that sense of, okay, we have this problem. Let’s move forward. How do we compensate for it? Cause the pro, and that’s the other part, the problem doesn’t go away. A lot of parents who may be their child in another country was already identified, arrive in the United States and they don’t tell anybody because they figured new country, new start.

No, it doesn’t go away. And if you have a disability, you have a disability in both your home language and English. It might be a little worse in English because you don’t know the language yet. It’s having that conversation of now we know what’s going on, now let’s plan for the future. And that’s what I always try to bring to my students, that idea.

I told every single student that I had from kindergarten [00:18:00] through 12th grade what their IEPs were. What were the diagnoses? What does this mean? How can we compensate? And I took every single student from first grade up with me to IEP meetings. Which used to drive the psychologist crazy on the annual reviews because you have the parents sitting there and then I walk in with the kid.

So I might have a seven year old sitting next to me, or I might have a 17 year old sitting next to me, but they have a say, 

Justin Hewett: not only do they have a say, but that information. It must have been liberating for those students became something that they now could figure out. Right? Like it’s figure out a bull.

If you get the right supports and the right help and you put the right scaffolding in place and you learn different mechanisms or whatever that you can use, which I’m sure you’ve figured some of those things out for yourself. But I love the fact that That you had those conversations with students. One of the things that Hattie’s talked about from his meta study is that students need to become [00:19:00] assessment capable learners, right?

This is a classic example of that, right? They need to be able to understand where they’re at and understand what they need to do to keep moving forward. 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: And to be part of the decision making. 

Justin Hewett: Right. 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: And what’s going on. Funniest. A reaction I had by a student, I took a seven year old with me to an IEP meeting.

They’re talking about the IEP and they’re talking about everything he’s got to learn and he raises his hand in front of all these adults, which I thought was really brave. And he’s, okay, I get it. You want me to learn all of that, but who’s going to teach me? And every adult just went quiet. Eventually it was me.

Nobody stopped to think about, okay, the kid wanted to know who’s going to work with me. Who’s going to do this? How am I going to learn it? Just because he was seven didn’t mean he wasn’t a critical thinker. 

Mandi Morris: Mary, I love that student called out what can be a shortcoming in our system is a lack of resources.

And sometimes the [00:20:00] resources are the people that, how have you seen that fold out in your career? And I’m just really curious, have you seen creative ways to problem solving that? 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: It is because it’s working per kid. One of the things that I learned the minute I got tenure, I got to open my mouth and say, thanks.

You want to make sure you don’t get it. Doing that problem solving involving and opening up the conversations. Sometimes the best conversations are in the teacher’s room while people are having lunch and you try to problem solve. You try to bring in people’s opinions. You bring the student in. I’ve never been afraid of asking the students what they want to know, whether it’s a silly answer or if it’s a really profound one, I’ve always found that students have something to say and to contribute.

regardless of their age. And when you bring in the second language learners, it was the same thing. When I’m working with [00:21:00] English learners, I would go over their proficiency scores with them and the standards they had to meet. And we would have class wide meetings. That’s why my kids never complained about why is he getting that scaffold and I’m not?

Why is he getting the graphic novel version of Macbeth and I’m getting the real version of Macbeth? We never had that argument because they understood right from the start. That what levels we are on, what do we need? They may complain and say, I want to read the graphic novel version. I’m like, fine, sign it out, take it home, read it at home.

But right now you’re reading the real thing in my classroom. And so it’s working with that. And it’s also opening that up to teachers, which is why I love professional development. It’s opening up the conversation to teachers, to start them off in thinking, problem solving and working with their students and having them include their students in their conversations.

It’s. and in their thoughts and how do you develop curriculum. Amanda, you work with curriculum development and you have to [00:22:00] open up curriculum. You have to look at what’s there and what’s not there that we have to add to it. 

Mandi Morris: I’ve sat in on a lot of IEP meetings over the years and I have never seen a student brought into that meeting.

I think I just, I needed to like sit there, that information and process it for a minute as an educator. That’s a pretty powerful shift. I wonder, did you find that people or administrators were resistant? And if so, how did you handle that, knowing that it was the right shift to make? 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: It depends on what’s said.

State in the United States you’re in. For example, in New York state, you generally from the sixth grade on, bring the kids with you. They, they need to be in there and they have to sign the IEP along with everybody else. So I was very used to bringing the students with me, especially at the secondary level when I worked in Connecticut, not so much, so it depends.

You had the option of doing it or not. [00:23:00] So I think it really depends on. What state in the United States you’re in, what are the laws, what are the regulations, and what do they say? You also want to make sure that the parent’s okay with it, because some parents are not comfortable with it. So then maybe it’s a second conversation at another point.

It also depends on the age of the students and their ability to accept it. So it’s a long process, but it really depends on where you’re at. And like I said, once I got tenure, I started doing everything that I could to empower the kids. 

Justin Hewett: And I’m wondering, I’m thinking about your experience, right? Like being diagnosed at 25 years old.

And, but obviously I imagine you had a harder experience to some degree up until that point because you didn’t have that information and didn’t have maybe that support per se. What about our students? Like how often do you think we’re under identifying? In working with districts across the nation, we hear all the time about, [00:24:00] Oh, this district is really over identified.

It’s a new EL director or something. And they’re talking about how this district is really over identified or under identified students who are English learners and, and who might have an IEP. And so I’m just trying to figure out like, how does that happen? That students are either over identified or under identified.

For special education services as an English. 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: It depends again on what state you’re in. For example, if you take a look at the statistics, California’s English learners, for example, are definitely over identified. If you take a look at the statistics, where at one point up to 29 percent of all English learners were identified as special educations.

are needing skills. Yet, if I go to Delaware, less than 10 percent are, which is nowhere near the national average. Some districts say, no, we can’t identify English learners as needing services until they’ve been here 3 4 years. That could be a disservice to kids, and [00:25:00] that’s where kids start falling through the cracks as they learn to work the system.

While you also have cultures that don’t accept the idea of disabilities. So the parents, regardless, are going to say no to testing. 

Justin Hewett: So why is that? I know, Mandi, I know you want to jump in too. I know, this is super interesting. I want to ask just one thing then. Why is it so state dependent? Delaware 10%, California 25 percent of English learners identified twice, duly coded.

How do you Like, how do you think about that? As far as the state, 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: every state has its own requirements as far as figuring out language proficiency, figuring out their definition of what a learning disability is. Every state is required to have a different initiative of learning disability, for example, but they don’t have to follow the national suggestions.

So every state has its own definition. So that’s very much a state’s rights. where the states make [00:26:00] these decisions. Same way with accommodations and modifications are different per state. So some states allow bilingual dictionary, some states don’t on assessments. Some allow, all of them allow specified locations and extended time.

But that extended time might be no limit, one hour limit, a time and a half, double time. Some states have no limits. And believe me, those are the hard ones because you’re there taking the state exam with the kid until 9 o’clock at night. Which I’ve done and it’s really difficult because you have to send out for food during the test.

Figuring out the identification, the implementation is a state issue. It’s not a federal issue. Federal guidelines give suggestions. We still actually still use allow remedies on the federal level. So in other words, they know they have to do it and they have to provide the service. But how they do it is a state decision, [00:27:00] which is okay, because different groups gravitate to different states.

Mandi Morris: Mary, I would love your input on this. Going back to what you were talking about with students not being identified in year 3 and 4, that can sometimes be a disadvantage to the student because they’re not getting the resources and support that they need. Um, in a previous role that I was in, I was working in a coordinator position, and there was a lot of talk in the school district about being over identified.

Our students were over identified, so I, I met with our SPED department, the director, and we were talking about it, and she said, you need to get a task force together. You need to have ELD, SPED, Equity, all in the task force. We’ve got to get our data together before we can get any kind of action plan or response.

We need all of the data first. And something that we were really struggling with in that first year of having the task force was trying to understand with our influx of SIFE and SLIFE students, when do we draw those parameters around [00:28:00] identification? Because we had students who were coming in, in middle school and high school with no formal education, background education.

And so we And there were times when it felt like identification was the right thing, but it was so hard to create a procedure around it because we also didn’t want students just being identified in 10th grade because they hadn’t yet had the opportunity to be in a formal education setting. I would love to hear your perspective on what advice do you give for school districts that are grappling with this issue?

Especially at the secondary level. 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: Yeah, that’s a huge issue, and that’s where MTSS, the Multi Tiered System Support, or RTI, Response to Intervention, that’s where that comes in, because that’s your data gathering. Federal law says you can’t, time and country is, not federal law, federal regulations say that time and country is not a reason to deny evaluation for special education.[00:29:00] 

There are some kids who arrive. I’ve had kids arrive that I know straight out after the second week, there is a learning problem, but I need the data to support that. So through the MTSS or RTI process, that’s where I gather the data. That’s where teachers show their good faith efforts of what they’re doing in the classroom to help the students.

What am I doing to scaffold? What am I doing to differentiate? What am I doing to support the student in the classroom? And is it working? Am I using guided practice where I have those kids with me one on one while the rest of the class is doing whatever projects or whatever work they have to do? Is the EL teacher, that second language teacher, the EL specialist, part of the process of gathering that data?

That’s huge. I’ve seen a lot of MTSS teams where the EL teacher is not part of the discussion, yet those are his or her kids. That’s huge. I used to, [00:30:00] I wasn’t invited to those meetings. I just used to walk right in. Why? Because the kid would tell me, oh, we’re meeting or some of my parents would go out to the hallway, say they’re going to use the bathroom and they would call me on the phone.

Why aren’t you in this meeting? And I would find a sub and go walk into the meeting because we forget that the EL teacher or the EL specialist or a multilingual specialist is the one who knows the kids the best. They know their proficiency scores. They know which standards they’re working on and they should be part of the discussion.

But you need to gather data. You need to gather data on student performance, on how fast or how slow mastery is. A lot of places, for example, who use, let’s say they’re using the WIDA language proficiency, the WIDA access test for language proficiency. They’re not considered a success unless they go up an entire proficiency level.

But we have those life students or those life students who, if they go from a 2. 1 to a [00:31:00] 2. 5, I’m going to throw a party. 

Justin Hewett: Yeah. That’s huge growth. 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: That’s huge growth, but it’s not considered growth because they didn’t go up an entire proficiency level. I’m just saying it’s something that we have to track.

We have to document so that before we say I need to test the student, we show good faith efforts to do everything humanly possible before we try to label them. Because one thing that does happen with SLIFE students, they tend to grow very quickly. If given the appropriate interventions, 

Justin Hewett: I think that’s one of the things that’s really driven us at flashlight learning is trying to give students an opportunity to show the language that they do have.

So, then it’s something that that teachers can progress monitor that we could use for in a situation like this, that you could take a sample of the students work now, and then you could do it a month from now and 3 months from now, and you can look at that progress and it’s not just a once a year. Type of a thing of how did they do on WIDA per se.[00:32:00] 

But instead we can look at how is this student trending? And then it’s not turning into a three or four year exercise to figure out what the student needs. And instead it’s something that can be calibrated in a lot shorter timeframe. And that’s, that’s how we accelerate students is we give them feedback in shorter increments that allow them to, to grow and layer on additional skills.

Mandi Morris: Mary, I am so curious to hear your thoughts around state language assessments, you brought up WIDA. And talking about that and student growth on WIDA, some state language assessments have developed alternative assessments. What are your thoughts about alternative assessments? And even just for states that don’t have those around, how should states be handling students who are dual identified and sitting for state language assessments?

Marybelle Marrero Colon: Yeah, again, that, that goes state per state, and a lot of people don’t know that we have [00:33:00] multiple language proficiency tests that are given out there. So, for example, some states, uh, use ELPA. Some states, uh, have their own, like Texas and New York created their own tests. Some states are WIDA. Some states use the last links, which I happen to really like.

Bye. Each one of those have their own language proficiency standards. Some states, like Connecticut, uses the last links as a test, but they created their own standards. Separate from the ones that were used. So, each state looks at what language proficiency is. The only main requirement there is that every state has to have one, but they get to choose.

And some states tend to switch. There are 42 states that use WIDA access and the WIDA standards. But the other states and territories use other proficiency levels. And then you have the adult ones, which, you know, there aren’t adult language proficiency [00:34:00] tests out there. So you’re taking a look at it, but the alternative tests, or the alternative versions, I think are very much necessary.

Because sometimes the reason why a student doesn’t pass, The language proficiency test is because they have a learning disability and the learning disability does not allow them to actually demonstrate their knowledge of the language. I think if an alternative is offered and not every state offers alternatives.

Some states don’t even allow accommodations and modifications while other states do. They have to take a look. That’s why State Department of Education’s websites are so valuable for information because that all is there in every state of what it looks like. But I personally like the idea that if I have a student with a learning disability who I know is English dominant but still fails the test because of the learning disability, I want an alternative.

Some states allow you [00:35:00] on an IEP. to opt out of receiving EL services or ML services. So they’re allowed on the IEP to, to actually say, this student’s going to receive all services in English. Unfortunately, most of those states still require the students to take the proficiency test. 

Mandi Morris: You honed in on something.

If you have a student that is English dominant, but still failing the state language assessment, then you want an alternative. Could you define for our listeners that perhaps maybe this is a newer topic for them or something that they’re really curious about? Like, how would you talk about, Or, establish a student as English dominant.

Marybelle Marrero Colon: That you do through whatever testing measures are allowed by your state. Every state has different evaluations, but the school psychologist generally can test for language dominance. So some of the popular tests that are used, like the Woodcock Johnson or the Woodcock Munoz in Spanish, allow you to measure [00:36:00] for language dominance.

But we have well over Two to three hundred languages in this country. There are no tests available, let’s say in Urdu or in Tagalog or in different languages, Punjabi, and then which one does this, if you have a student that comes from different languages or comes from a country where they speak multiple languages.

We used to have a lot of kids coming in from different African countries where they spoke three to four languages. They spoke the national language, they spoke English, and they spoke their tribal languages. And then what about those students who come in whose language group is only oral and don’t have a written component.

We’re having a lot of students coming in speaking indigenous languages that have no written component to it. It’s an oral literacy. So how are we defining literacy? So you have to look and see what’s available and what’s [00:37:00] allowed per state, because there are some tests out there that certain states will boycott and say you can’t use them.

So you have to see what’s available. Maybe use some psychologists like using nonverbal tests. to be able to look at learning versus language issues or language dominance issues and be able to identify language dominance. But that also means That we have to follow the letter of the law when it comes to the fact that when we are evaluating a second language learner, we must evaluate them in both languages.

We must evaluate in their home language and in English. And that’s really where you see the language dominance because some of the kids never learn to read. in their home language. They never learn to write in their home language because 70 percent of second language learners in this country are born here.

So they’ve never been to school in their own country. Like me, I, [00:38:00] I was born here. We spoke Spanish and English. We read Spanish and English. That doesn’t mean I could write an essay in Spanish until at least until I got to high school. 

Justin Hewett: I love the way you frame the way that you frame this work. And as, as you talk through it and it’s, it’s apparent how personal it is to you and what a mission you’re on.

I just love it because it just shows for you to bring that seven year old into an IEP meeting, right? Like you are just such an advocate for these students and for their families. And I’m sure that. It bleeds into all the work you’re doing as far as professional development and coaching and the, and the present take the presenting you’re doing at all the national conferences and whatnot.

I’m curious to, I don’t know, not necessarily switch gears, but go deeper for an EL director. Let’s say I’m a new EL director in a district and I step into this role and I feel like. I look at the state average as far as number of English learners who are diagnosed with a learning disability, and I’m looking at all these [00:39:00] different states, and my district, I feel like it’s out of whack, right?

I feel like we have over identified, or maybe it’s under identified, right? But like, But what is the first step for that EL director? That’s relatively new. They’re still learning the lay of the land in the district per se, but what would be obviously data helps. So having that data, looking at that data, triangulating it, putting, helping the data tell the story, but what would you recommend as the first step?

In that district to making sure that you’re meeting the needs of students in the way that they should be met. 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: Step one, professional development. We ask teachers in the general education classroom or the tier one classroom as it’s being called to work with students who have differences, their differences in language, differences in learning, but we don’t train them to work with the students.

I was a teacher for a good 15 years before I knew what scaffolding was. I didn’t know how to [00:40:00] scaffold. I didn’t know how to differentiate. I just did what I thought was going to work with the kids. We need thorough training. We need teachers to have access to the research, but not just have access to the research, but how to implement.

I do a lot of SIOP training, sheltered instruction training, and the most important part of that training is making sure that theory can be put into practice. Because theory without practice means nothing. It’s a nice tidbit of information, but I need to be able to use it in the classroom. But somebody has to teach me.

I never used an anticipation guide until I was 20 years into teaching. I didn’t know what that was. Until a coach came and told me, like, you’re doing this big project based unit, you need to use an anticipation guide. And I was resistive to it, just like a lot of teachers are. I’m like, oh god, not, not another thing that I’m adding in.

But it was the best thing I ever did for that lesson. It saved me weeks of heading in the wrong direction with my students. [00:41:00] So, it’s, it’s amazing. Professional development is the first piece. What do your teachers know? What do they need to know? What is science based research methodology? And how do we document student progress and mastery?

That’s the first step before we start trying to take on the system, start trying to take on the assessments and everything, what is it my kids need to know and how do I teach it? Especially in the Tier 1 classroom where literally you can have everything in that one classroom. I’ll give you a good example of that.

I taught, my last year in the classroom was 2012. And I had worked myself out of a job because out of my 72 English learners, 70 of them had passed the New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test, the NYSESLAT. And I had worked myself out of a job. 

Justin Hewett: Literally. Literally you had worked yourself out of a job.

Marybelle Marrero Colon: I had two [00:42:00] English learners left that year. 

Justin Hewett: It’s amazing. 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: And I was teaching world history or global history as it’s called in New York. And it’s a two year course in, in the high school level and my first period class had English learners, former English learners, life students with IEPs. I had three kids on psychotropic drugs, who they would call each other in the morning and tell each other don’t take your pills today.

I had kids who should have been in advanced placement, and I had seniors who had failed it in the ninth grade. And then, of course, this is a ninth grade classroom, and then I had the general education students. And I was expected to cover Pangea through the Renaissance with India, China, and Japan in there in one year.

And that’s what a tier one classroom is. It has everything in there. And if you don’t train the teacher to work with all those populations, if you don’t provide professional [00:43:00] development, helping them to target students and monitor students and have them keep really good records, How am I going to decide this kid needs to go into tier two get extra help this kid needs to go into tier three Get extra help.

I need to get this kid evaluated Hey, I have this kid in this classroom Who what should never have been in special ed to begin with and train them how to work collaboratively with other teachers Related service providers coming in. I had the speech and language teacher coming in once a week in the classroom I had one on one paraprofessionals in the classroom.

I had just At any given point in time, I had four adults in the room. Had I not been trained to work with that many adults in the room, we wouldn’t have gotten anything done. 

Justin Hewett: Yeah, I can imagine that for a lot of teachers that would be overwhelming. Yeah, that, that, that, you weren’t, you weren’t able to hit snooze on those days.

You were gonna, you gotta get up and you jump right into the fire. I love it. 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: Especially not in that school. So we have to train teachers. [00:44:00] That’s the first step. And then after the training, now we start talking about individual issues and working with the kids individually to see what they need. 

Justin Hewett: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense to me.

When I think about the work we’re doing at Flashlight, for example, a lot of teachers. Are still learning how to really listen to and provide feedback to students as far as their productive language, especially when in regards to speaking. And so we’ve tried to make our tool and our rubric and provide anchors, but make it approachable and make it something that, you know, that we can, we provide scaffolding for the teacher, if you will, to help them begin doing some of that work.

And so I can see why starting with professional development really is the foundational piece. This has been an amazing conversation. And frankly, I think I’m ready to sign up for part two already. And, but I know that we’re running narrow on time. We were, we’re running to the end of our time, but there’s a couple of questions.

We just, we just want to hear who has made the biggest impact on your journey [00:45:00] as an ML educator. And can you tell us a story about that? 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: I think I can name a couple of people. First was my assistant principal. When I started teaching in 1986. And I was not an ed major. I was a forensic psychology major.

And I fell into teaching because they offered me a free master’s and a job that I needed desperately. And. That assistant principal, and I’ll say his name because I love the man dearly and I think he deserves kudos, Martin Fiascanaro, and he was phenomenal. He literally sat me next to him on, and he was an Italian speaker, and he literally sat me at his desk and taught me how to write a lesson plan.

He, would come in continuously to observe and to help me and to really be there. Years later, when I was changing jobs, he called me and was like, Hey, come, I’m a principal now come in and work with me in my school. So he really was [00:46:00] the first person to really sit me down and explain because I literally knew nothing.

To start working on that. I found out when I was teaching from looking at the kids program card, it said Marrero General Science. And I’m like, okay, I think I can do that. The other person I think really influenced me was Dr. Edna Vega, who was the superintendent for the Office of English Language Learners for the City of New York.

And she taught me everything I know about professional development and how to work for it and talk about a perfectionist. If a comma was out of place in a handout, we had to redo the whole thing. But she really. Taught me how to work with teachers and the adult learning piece. And I’ve got to say, and the last person is Dr.

Deborah Short, developer of the SIOP model. She was the one who trained me in 2000 and started me on the road that got me to go to Cal to work with professional development. She was phenomenal in breaking down how students [00:47:00] learn from me. And I was the annoying teacher. I kept emailing her after the training and sending letters and asking questions.

And every conference I would show up in her groups, she probably thought I was stalking her, but I learned so much from her. Still, I look for her when I go to TESOL. First thing I do is I start looking for her because I learned so much from her because she broke down for me what it meant to be a teacher.

And then, how do I take it as a staff developer, a professional developer, and help teachers implement? Those are the people that I think really helped. I was very blessed in that I came into the field at a time where the best of the researchers were out there. So, I was very blessed in learning from all of them.

Mandi Morris: Mary, this has been an amazing conversation. Your passion for this work is infectious and your experience, you’re able to really [00:48:00] articulate it in a way that feels so practical and applicable for the admin and teachers who are listening to this today. We are so thankful that you were able to spend this time with us. Thank you so much. 

Marybelle Marrero Colon: Thank you. I really appreciate being here and having this conversation. Someone listened to what I have to say. 

Justin Hewett: Oh, there’s going to be a lot of people who listen and frankly, learn a lot from this. And so Marybelle, thank you so much for being here with us and being on the ML chat podcast. It was great to have you here.



Download the State Language Assessment Checklist

Fill out this short form and we’ll send you the State Language Assessment Checklist for quick reference.