Study: Most ELLs Are in Districts That Fall Short of Federal Goals

By Lesli A. Maxwell — May 11, 2012 7 min read
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CORRECTION AND UPDATE: The Ed. Dept. wants to make clear that this report is not the “biennial” update to Congress mandated by federal law. This report was independently commissioned by the department. I regret my misunderstanding. The 2008 biennial report will be published later this month. And the 2010 biennial report will probably be out by the end of summer.

Most of the nation’s English-language learners were enrolled in school districts that failed to reach all of their accountability goals for that group of students in the 2008-09 school year, according to a national evaluation of the federal program that supports English-language-acquisition services.

While more than half of the school districts that receive federal funding to support programs for ELLs reported meeting all their academic goals in 2008-09, those districts served only 39 percent of the total ELL population. And, in that same school year, only 10 states achieved all of their accountability goals for English-language learners under the No Child Left Behind Act.

“It’s the most comprehensive report we’ve seen and it gives us a very good snapshot in time of both how far states and districts have come to develop and implement the requirements of Title III,” said Kathleen Leos, who was the director of the Education Department’s office of English-language acquisition during President George W. Bush’s administration. “But it also tells us how much further they need to go to change the actual achievement results for English-language learners.”

Those findings are part of a long-awaited evaluation of Title III—the section of the NCLB law that authorizes federal aid to states and local school districts for English-language-acquisition programs. They provide the most comprehensive picture to date of the overall academic progress of the nation’s 5.5 million English-language learners, the fastest-growing subgroup of students in America’s public schools. The Title III study was conducted by researchers at the Washington-based American Institutes for Research and released today by the U.S. Department of Education.

The report found that states and school districts have made major strides in developing and putting into practice systems with defined standards for English learners and assessments for measuring results, although there is wide variability in how the states define who an English-language learner is and what constitutes academic progress for such students.

“Over the decade, there has been a great deal of activity and change that shows how Title III has prompted states and districts to pay a lot more attention to both the language and the content needs of this population,” said James Taylor, one of the report’s authors. “But meeting the needs of this population is still a work in progress.”

The evaluation of the $732-million-a-year Title III program found that “states and districts are largely complying with the major provisions of the law.” Nearly all states reported that they have aligned English-language proficiency standards with state content standards in at least one core subject and that they have also linked state English-proficiency tests with their proficiency standards.

But the researchers also noted large variations in how states and school districts define which students are English-language learners and when they have reached the point of proficiency.

In all but eight states and the District of Columbia, local districts have discretion in how to identify ELLs. In the same vein, only 19 states had established consistent criteria for school districts to follow to determine when students no longer need English-language-acquisition services.

Still, one English learner expert notes, the report found that states and school districts have made significant progress in developing and putting into practice more consistent systems for serving English-learners.

“If you go back just 10 or 15 years, most states had no English-language proficiency standards and offered a long menu of different types of English-proficiency assessments that were completely non-comparable,” said Robert Linquanti, a senior research associate with WestEd, a San Francisco-based education research and development organization. “The other reality is that you had districts who did not assess these kids annually or even look at how they were doing for years, and there was no real focus on the relationship between the development of English-language proficiency and their progress on academic subject matter.”

Raúl González, the director of legislative affairs for the National Council of La Raza, said the report demonstrates that states and districts have focused attention on English-language learners in a way that is creating a “demand for better products and services for these children.”

But he described states and districts as still largely in an “R and D,” or research and development, stage of figuring out the best materials and instructional strategies to use.

“States and districts realize they need better programming, but they are still struggling to find it,” he said.

Roughly half of the school districts reported that they lacked good information on research-based curriculum and instruction for English learners.

The 40 states that fell short of making all three goals in the 2008-09 school year were not required to report on which ones they failed to meet.

The 10 states that did meet all accountability goals in all three areas for ELLs—known as “annual measurable achievement objectives,” or AMAOs—were Alabama, Delaware, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. Under the rules of Title III, each state sets its own specific AMAOs, which are goals for progress in learning English as measured by results on English-language-proficiency exams, attainment of fluency in English, and demonstration of ELLs’ proficiency on state content tests in reading and mathematics.

That’s a slight setback from the last update on Title III. In a series of research briefs on Title III that were released by the Education Department in May 2010, analysts said that 11 states met their accountability goals for English-language learners in the 2007-08 school year.

At the school district level, 80 percent of Title III districts reported that they had met their first two goals: making progress in learning English and attaining English proficiency. Sixty-four percent of them reported that they had also reached their third goal by making adequate yearly progress for the English-language-learner subgroup on state reading and math assessments, as well as other indicators such as attendance and graduation rates, according to the study.

But one-third of Title III districts—which collectively served about one-half of the ELLs that receive Title III support nationwide—reported in 2008-09 that they had missed one or more of their goals for English-learners for two or four consecutive years, which subjected them to accountability actions such as developing improvement plans and notifying parents of their status. In those districts that fell short for two or four consecutive years on their goals for ELLs, 71 percent also were identified for improvement or corrective action under Title I of the NCLB law.

The AIR research team interviewed Title III and assessment directors in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, conducted a nationally representative survey of more than 1,500 school districts receiving Title III funds, and used data collected in case studies of 12 Title III districts in five states.

Other major findings in the report include notable differences in Title III per-pupil funding levels among the states, even though the funds are disbursed by formula. In 2009, for example, Pennsylvania allocated $457 per student at the high end, compared with Alaska’s $86 per-pupil allocation on the low end. California, with the nation’s largest population of English-learners, allocated $115 per student in that same year. Those disparities, the report explains, stem in part from the formula’s use of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey rather than reports of English-language learner enrollment from state education agencies. Officials in just nine states said they believed the resources provided by Title III were adequate.

How states handled their Title III funding has drawn federal scrutiny off and on since NCLB was enacted.

The report also found that in the 2009-10 school year, 74 percent of Title III districts reported having 100 percent of their teachers serving English-learners “fully certified” to do so. But nearly the same percentage of districts said that the “lack of expertise among mainstream teachers to address the needs” of English-learners was a “moderate or major challenge.”

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