teenager at computer with headset on

I cried real tears the first time I received my students’ AAPPL scores. I had much to celebrate: great accomplishments on the Interpretive components, with several students obtaining scores high enough for our state’s Seal of Biliteracy, and those “surprise kids” performing better than expected. But they weren’t just the happy kind of tears; for every 10 celebrations there was one rating that would break my heart.

I’ve come to learn from other language teachers that this is a common phenomenon. As teachers, we become so personally invested in our students’ success that ratings on a test can feel like an indictment of our worth as a teacher. I’ve learned it’s important to stay away from that trap and instead use the results not as a badge of honor but as a way to improve our own professional practices.

I wasn’t sure if my students would do well the first time they took the AAPPL, but I felt very confident going into the Presentational Writing component. So, when I first saw one of my best writer’s score come back lower than anticipated, I had an immediate feeling of teacher-effectiveness crisis combined with the dread of having to deliver news to a kid I had showered with writing praise for over a year. The one skill I thought I taught well was writing and now the AAPPL results showed that things were not going as well as I had assumed.

That would have been the end of the story of that year’s testing if not for the encouragement of my instructional coach, the individual in charge of AAPPL administration in my district. She encouraged me to examine the students’ writing samples to look for commonalities between those that had received low scores, differences between high and low scores, and the characteristics of the high scores. I felt that it was not a helpful task since I was well versed in the ACTFL proficiency ranges. I assumed I knew the characteristics of Intermediate Low writing already. But I quickly learned two major things from the AAPPL results and from my review of the student samples that revitalized, refocused, and redefined my practices as a language teacher.

The fact that the AAPPL allowed me to review the samples after being rated was transformative. I was able to see the submitted work and the ratings, and a lot can be learned if you carefully review and compare. My instructional coach recommended I look for patterns—focusing on things I see repeatedly and the things that appear to be missing.

My biggest takeaway was that my students were weak in first person narrative writing. That made little sense to me until I thought about what we did in Spanish 3 and Spanish 4; we used novels and 3rd person storytelling heavily. The students were very skilled in writing about others and describing sequences of events but not strong in explaining their own experiences. Novels and storytelling are great for expanding vocabulary, learning structures, and getting exposure to culture. However, I learned from the AAPPL results that I didn’t infuse enough first-person narrative within those practices.

The other major weakness I saw from looking at the results was in direct second person informal communication in the form of emails or letters; my students could write about others but not necessarily to others. This surprised me because I figured they would apply the same structures we used in interpersonal communication practice. However, since I didn’t ever have them practice those structures specifically through writing, their lack of the ability to apply second person informal forms resulted in significant communication difficulties and possibly contributed to lower than expected scores.

It was also helpful to see that some of my talented writers only offered 3 or 4 sentences for advanced level prompts. Even though the writing samples they provided were crystal clear in terms of intelligibility— they didn’t demonstrate that they could string together paragraph level discourse. This boiled down to an effort issue. The students had assumed that perfect but brief production was sufficient and discounted the importance of “showing off” all of their writing skills. I now emphasize the importance of doing this in my teaching.

My practice as a teacher today is more well-rounded than it was prior to AAPPL testing. Learning from the results and examining patterns in the student samples have helped me understand how students apply their communicative modes and the range of their proficiency. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have those AAPPL samples matched with scores and grateful for the opportunity to have the data, which allows me to grow and learn.

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