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ESEA Rewrite and Waiver Issue: When Should ELLs Count for Accountability?

By Alyson Klein — July 21, 2015 2 min read
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When should English-language learners test results matter for accountability purposes? It’s an issue to watch as Congress rewrites the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—and as states are approved for waiver renewals under the current law.

Late last year, the U.S. Department of Education gave Florida a pass when it comes to the timetable for incorporating English-language learners test results into school ratings. (To be clear, the state must include growth before then, just not proficiency.) And now, more than half a dozen other states want similar flexibility. But it doesn’t look like they are going to get it, at least not yet.

Quick refresher: The current version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act, calls for states to incorporate the test results for English-language learners after they have been enrolled in U.S. schools for a year. After a lot of cajoling, and even threatened legal action, Florida asked for—and got—that extended to two years, which is what some ELL experts say is good practice anyway.

But the department is holding firm against offering any more leeway in this area—for now. So far, it has told at least two states—Delaware and Rhode Island—to take their requests for flexibility on ELL testing out of their waiver-renewal requests (which were then approved). And it’s turned down other states’ requests, including New York’s. Read more about what states are asking for in this story.

The issue may be wrapped up in the reauthorization of the ESEA law, since ELL testing could become a sticking point as both chambers try to conference their bills. The bipartisan bill that just passed the U.S. Senate keeps the current one-year reprieve in place.

But the House bill would allow states to delay including ELL’s math test scores in accountability systems until the students have been in the country for two years—and states could hold off for three years with reading tests. More on the differences between the bills here.

Reading between the lines, it seems like the department may be holding firm on this issue in waiver renewals, so the administration is in a stronger bargaining position on ELL accountability during ESEA reauthorization negotiations. Wonks: Do you agree? The comments section is open.

UPDATE: For you wonks out there, the language explaining testing of ELLs is on page 58 of the Senate bill.

An alert reader wrote in to ask about another provision (on page 40-41) of the bill that also deals with ELL testing. That provision allows ELLs to take English or math tests in their native language during their first three years in schools in the United States. And districts can extend that to an additional two years if they need to. (This pretty much codifies current practice.) These native language tests would still have to count for accountability purposes. This will only impact a select group of kids, since the vast majority of states don’t have native language tests.

Another point to watch, for you true blue ELL fans out there: The Senate bill would extend the amount of time ELLs who have already mastered English can count in the ELL own subgroup from two years to four years. That allows schools to get credit for improving students’ academic performance after they have already achieved English Language proficiency. (Right now, schools don’t really get bonus points in accountability systems for helping ELLs master English.)