Feds Soften 15-State Requirement for New ELL Tests

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 19, 2011 3 min read
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In their final notice calling for consortia of states to apply for federal funds to create English-language-proficiency tests aligned with the common-core academic standards, federal officials say applicants will get extra points if they have at least 15 states as members, but they won’t be disqualified if they don’t. The notice calls the 15-state minimum a “competitive preference priority,” not a requirement. That’s a change from the notice that first proposed the $10.7 million grant competition for a new generation of English-proficiency tests to be created as part of the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

The final notice published in today’s Federal Register says the U.S. Department of Education expects to select only two consortia to receive the awards.

But in the final notice, federal officials have kept other requirements for the grant competition that were contained in the Jan. 7 notice proposing the competition, and added another.

States awarded funds to work on a common English-proficiency assessment will have to agree on a common definition for English-language learners and criteria for students to exit special programs to learn the language. The final notice spells out much more clearly than the initial notice did what that common definition means. It says that the common definition must be “identical for purposes of the diagnostic (e.g., screener or placement) assessments and associated achievement standards used to classify students as English-learners as well as the summative assessments and associated achievement standards used to exit students from English-learner status.”

Unlike regular English/language arts tests, which measure students’ mastery of skills typically taught in a mainstream English class, such as analyzing literature or applying reading strategies, English-proficiency tests measure progress of students in learning to speak, listen, read, and write in English. They’re used to assess annual progress for ELLs in acquiring the language as well as to help educators decide when such students are ready to leave special programs.

Slipped into the explanation for what kind of data the new English-proficiency assessment systems will have to report, is a requirement for states to disaggregate data for various subgroups of English-language learners, something that was not required of the English-proficiency tests states developed to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act. That explanation says that the data should be disaggregated by subgroups “such as English-learners by years in a language-instruction educational program; English-learners whose formal education has been interrupted; students who were formerly English-learners by years out of the language-instruction educational program ... English-learners by disability status; and English-learners by native language.”

I interpret the “such as” phrase as giving the states some flexibility in which subgroups of ELLs they focus on, but nevertheless, this requirement is calling for data collection that is more detailed than previously was the case.

Robert Linquanti, a senior research associate for WestEd, said in an email today that the federal government likely relaxed the requirement of the 15-state minimum because of a concern that the constraint might yield only one bidder for the competition, the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment consortium, which has 24 states plus the District of Columbia as members.

Linquanti commented that the requirement that states within a consortia create a common definition for ELLs will “force a national policy conversation on what we mean by [English-learner] and this is a good thing.” He said that, at the least, states should have a common definition across their own school districts. As I’ve reported recently, that’s not the case in California.

He observed that the final notice prohibits consortia from using awards from the competition to support the creation of English-proficiency standards. “So if you don’t have them, you’ll need to develop them or make your existing ones correspond [to the common-core standards] on your own dime,” he said.

Diane August, a senior research scientist affiliated with the Center for Applied Linguistics, in Washington, said it could benefit ELLs for states within a consortia to come up with a common definition and exit criteria for such students but only if the standards used for English-language proficiency are “in rigorous alignment” with states’ academic content standards and assessments. She’s worried, she said, that states will set the criteria for ELLs to exit special programs too low. “One of my concerns is that if you have a lot of states participating, to get buy-in, you compromise,” she told me in a phone interview.

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