School & District Management

Six States, Six Different Definitions of English Fluency

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 07, 2011 2 min read
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Researchers for a federal study took a look at six southeastern states and found they have six different sets of (very complicated) goals for English-language learners under the accountability system of the No Child Left Behind Act, making it impossible to compare one state’s progress with such students with another’s. Only two of the states used the same English-proficiency tests, and definitions for English fluency were different in each of the six states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Actually, I could have written a blog post called “Fifty States, 50 Different Definitions for English Fluency” even without having read the study on the six southeastern states, which was conducted by the Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast and released this week by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. Those of us who follow policy affecting English-language learners know that the definitions for being an ELL and for attaining fluency are all over the map.

But the new study sheds light on just how complicated some of the goals are that states set for ELLs to comply with accountability provisions under the No Child Left Behind Act. The study looked at the policies and outcomes for ELLs in the southeastern states during the 2007-08 school year.

Georgia and South Carolina, for example, grouped all ELLs together to determine what proportion attained English fluency that school year. The other states organized students into cohorts based on how long the students had received special help to learn English. But how they organized those cohorts varied. Alabama and North Carolina, for instance, used only one cohort of students who had been in special programs for five or more years to report the proportion of students who gained fluency. Florida went with a single cohort of students in programs for three or more years. Meanwhile, Mississippi opted for grouping all ELLs in three different cohorts and then making a single determination across all three with a “cross-cohort index.”

I’m not going to delve any further into the weeds on these definitions of fluency. Read the report yourself and then hit the comment button and weigh in on whether you think states should be working toward a common definition of ELLs and English fluency or not.

I reported recently about how federal officials seem to be pushing states to move in that direction.

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