Does the Nation Need One Definition for English-Language Learners?

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 09, 2009 1 min read
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This week, during a panel that I moderated for the release of Quality Counts 2009, Kris Gutierrez, a professor of social research methodology at the University of California at Los Angeles, said the nation should have a common definition for English-language learners. Ms. Gutierrez, by the way, is a member of the working group for education of President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team, though as a panelist she was articulating only her own personal views, not those of the transition team.

She proposed this seemingly simple—but actually not so simple—idea in answer to a question of how the No Child Left Behind Act should be changed to better address the needs of English-language learners.

I say that the idea is “not so simple” because right now, just as states set their own goals for what is considered to be adequate yearly progress for students, they also create their own definitions for what is an ELL and what kind of achievement on state English-language-proficiency tests or regular academic state tests signifies that a student is no longer an ELL. And in many states, school districts have discretion to determine when a student is no longer an ELL.

It’s hard for me to picture states agreeing on a common definition or trusting the U.S. Congress to come up with a workable common definition. But at the same time 19 states are already using the same English-language-proficiency standards and test that were produced by the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment, or WIDA, consortium. So that’s 19 states that are using some common tools for the education of ELLs, even although those individual states use various cut-off scores to recommend that a student is no longer an ELL.

Readers, I’d like to hear from you what the implications would be for the nation to have a common definition for ELLs. Can you picture it happening, and would it be a benefit to the field?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.