Five Questions With: Marcela Betancur

When the results of the 2018-2019 Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System were released last week, they showed that the overall performance of students in grades 3 to 8 improved somewhat from the previous year. But the results also showed that English language learners and students of color continue to lag behind significantly in proficiency levels in math and English language arts.

Marcela Betancur, director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, spoke to PBN about the RICAS results and those “equity gaps.”

PBN: Were you surprised by the results of the RICAS that again show persistent equity gaps involving English language learners and students of color? Explain why you were either surprised or not.

BETANCUR: After the 2018 RICAS results, many education experts predicted that in year two, students and teachers would become more familiar with the test, leading to an increase in scores in some districts. Similarly, the continuous gaps and disparities that we are finding among English language learners and students of color are also not surprising. This is due in the most part because we have yet to truly begin addressing some of the causes for these disparities such as the digital divide, resources for students and teachers, and most importantly – the lens by which [education officials] are looking at these results and students is the wrong one. We continue to look at ELL students like they are deficient. When in reality, these young people are able to think, speak, and sometimes read or write in a second language.

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PBN: You’ve praised state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green for not using small improvements in overall grades to take a “victory lap.” But is there anything that you’re not hearing from education leaders that you would like to hear?

BETANCUR: In the coming weeks, as we see the conversations surrounding the RICAS results begin to dwindle, I hope that we utilize the moment to continue advocating for a more nuanced and detailed analysis of our entire education system across the state. We must look at how building conditions, curriculums, teaching environment, as well as district policies and procedures are affecting our students. This is especially important as the Providence Public School District takeover begins to unfold since it will create an unprecedented path for how our state addresses a system that has been failing students – especially those in underserved communities – for decades. As … Domingo Morel has highlighted several times, the PPSD takeover is a unique opportunity, one that, if done correctly through true community engagement and addressing systemic barriers, could be the one to possibly succeed.

It is my hope that our leaders across the state – not just those within the education field – continue to have brave and difficult discussions about how different systemic inequities are affecting our students. When we truly begin to dismantle the issues around housing and food insecurity, segregation within our districts and how racism [plays] a pivotal part in our failing education system, only then will we be able to ensure that all of our students are succeeding.

PBN: You’ve said that it’s unfair to use RICAS English language arts scores to evaluate English language learners when many of them, by their very status, are not yet proficient. What’s the alternative?

BETANCUR: Currently, Rhode Island ELL students are given a test during the beginning of the year referred to as the “ACCESS” test. This test evaluates and assesses the language proficiency of ELL students K-12. However, we rarely hear our education leaders talking about it, when in reality it is currently the best way to truly assess and measure the language development of our students.

By establishing learning environments that support the active engagement of ELL students and honor the diverse ways in which they approach and communicate about math, we may be able to better assess their progress and proficiency. In addition, ensuring that the curriculum is culturally and linguistically relevant is imperative. To do so, we must have teachers that have adequate training and support to work with students that may approach mathematics in a different way.

PBN: Are there communities elsewhere that have come up with successful solutions to closing these equity gaps?

BETANCUR: A recent article from a local New York news station found that students whose home language was not English outperformed their peers who had English as a first language. The practices and curriculum utilized in some of these classrooms were culturally responsive to its students, which led them to better absorb and learn the topics at hand. This is a great example of what happens when we begin looking at our ELL students, not as deficient or lazy, but as young people who write, learn and communicate in a different way. Additionally, we must acknowledge the success and opportunities that dual-language programs offer our students and invest in them.

When it comes to finding successful solutions to the education disparities we see in our state, we must look within. While we may not know everything, we know a lot more today than we did years ago. By investing in better programs and supports for our current teachers while building a pipeline for teachers of color and examining the nuanced issues that affect the education ecosystem, we can develop sustainable solutions.

PBN: What can the Latino Policy Institute do to help improve the situation?

BETANCUR: LPI hopes to foster conversations to ensure that any changes made by [the R.I. Department of Education] in practice or policies are done with community involvement in mind. It is also imperative that any changes or decisions made about our education are done in ways that we know work, and not in a reactionary manner. Most importantly, LPI hopes to elevate the experiences and voices of leaders that have had similar experiences and backgrounds to our ELL students and students of color, so that we may make decisions with an equity lens.

William Hamilton is PBN managing editor. You can follow him on Twitter @waham or email him at