Consistent ELL Guides Proposed

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 09, 2008 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In a move that could prompt major changes in the way states measure the achievement of English-language learners, the U.S. Department of Education is planning to tell states they must each use a consistent yardstick in determining when a child is fluent in English and when that child no longer needs special ELL services.

A proposed “interpretation” of the No Child Left Behind Act’s Title III—the conduit for most federal funding for ELL programs—says that states must further standardize the criteria they use to report how well such students are learning English.

That’s likely to reduce the flexibility that states typically have given school districts in assessing the progress of their English-learners and to have a big impact on how school systems decide when those students are ready to leave ELL programs, experts in the field say. “It’s going to clarify things but require states to reconsider their accountability systems,” Robert Linquanti, a senior research associate at WestEd, an Oakland, Calif.-based research organization, said about the notice published May 2 in the Federal Register.

Federal officials are aware that the proposal may cut back on some of the leeway states have assumed in the past—and that’s part of the point, according to Kathryn M. Doherty, a special assistant to the department’s deputy secretary.

“There are a few important ways in which we are pulling back on some of the variation that states have been allowed on big-picture issues,” she said in an interview last week. “The big theme of the notice is that we do mean to have much more consistent implementation so that all Title III-served kids are included in accountability for Title III.”

But some state education officials and experts on English-learners were still puzzling over the implications of the proposal last week.

Hector Rico, the director of the language-learner and -support division of the California Department of Education, said it might be tricky to come up with a statewide standard in California for criteria such as the judgment teachers now use in helping to decide when students leave ELL programs.

And his initial reading of the proposal is that California—where a quarter of students are English-learners—would have to change its state laws to implement some aspects of the interpretation.

“We think it’s good to use multiple measures,” he said. “When we get a better understanding of what [federal officials] mean by ‘exit criteria,’ we’d be in a better position to say if ours align with theirs.”

Many Students Missed?

The proposed interpretation focuses on the criteria states use to report to the federal government under the 6-year-old No Child Left Behind law that students are making progress or attaining proficiency in English—a yardstick called “annual measurable achievement objectives,” or AMAOs.

Currently, Ms. Doherty said, the reporting process for marking students’ annual progress in English misses anywhere from one-fifth to a third of English-language learners being served by Title III programs because districts typically exclude students who haven’t been in their schools long enough to have taken the state’s English-language-proficiency test for two school years in a row.

The notice says that states will need to find a way to come up with “two data points” so those students won’t be excluded when the states report on the progress of their ELL populations.

The proposal also says that states can no longer use one set of criteria to report that students have attained proficiency and another set of criteria in deciding when students can leave specialized instruction for English-learners.

Typically, states use a less stringent standard for classifying students as “proficient” than they do in deciding when those students can leave special programs—for which the states receive federal Title III money.

A New Interpretation?

The federal government is moving to put states on notice that they will have to use a consistent set of criteria in reporting how well English-learners are doing in acquiring the language. Among the specific proposals:

•An English-learner must score as proficient or above in each and every language domain—reading, writing, speaking, and listening—on the state’s English-language-proficiency test to be considered to have attained proficiency.

•All students would have to be included in measurements of student progress regardless of whether they have participated in at least two consecutive and consistent annual administrations of the state’s English-language-proficiency test.

•States’ definitions for attaining proficiency in English must be consistent with and reflect the same criteria states use to determine that ELLs no longer need services and are prepared to exit programs.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

And in states such as California and Virginia, school districts—not state officials—determine when a student leaves an English-acquisition program. In doing so, they often consider factors in addition to how well students score on the states’ English-proficiency tests.

In California, Mr. Linquanti said, 30 percent of ELLs score as proficient on the state’s English-language-proficiency test, while only 9 percent of ELLs each year are reclassified as fluent in English.

The federal proposal apparently is intended to address such anomalies. As matters stand now, said Ms. Doherty, many ELLs may be in a “weird no man’s land,” in which they have officially attained proficiency in English but are still in programs to learn the language.

At a minimum, the proposal says, students must attain a score of proficient in all domains of their state’s English-language-proficiency test—reading, writing, speaking, and listening—to be considered as having attained proficiency.

The proposal says that states may use additional criteria as well, such as performance on regular state reading or mathematics tests, to determine if students are proficient in English and should leave ELL programs.

Concern About Flexibility

But several experts interviewed last week said the proposed interpretation means that, in states with a strong tradition of local control, individual districts will likely end up with less discretion in deciding when ELLs leave programs.

They also warn that reconciling the two sets of criteria isn’t simple in states where administrators have been able to consider factors such as teacher judgment, student grades, and performance on state reading or math tests, as well as scores on the state’s English-language-proficiency test.

“In local-control states,” said Mr. Linquanti, “either the state will have to standardize this—remove local control—or the state will have to say, ‘There are 1,000 school districts and 1,000 definitions … based on what you define locally.’ ”

It would be a mistake, experts say, for states to respond to the federal government’s mandate for more standardization by selecting only one criterion.

“Those of us in measurement are concerned that there is an error in every score,” said Ellen Forte, a consultant on ELLs for the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers. “You don’t want to make a decision for a child based on one test score. … What we would not want to see is a situation where students who really need services are not given them.”

Diane Zendejas, the chief officer of the office of language and cultural education for the Chicago public schools, said she wouldn’t want her district to have to adhere only to statewide criteria when making decisions about giving students special help.

“The discretion of the local districts is important, because you aren’t just looking at numbers, but rather children and their ability to function in an all-English setting,” she said. Teacher judgment plays a role in decisions about when English-learners are ready to leave special programs in the 410,000-student Chicago system, which has 52,000 ELLs.

Roberta Schlicher, the director of program administration and accountability for the Virginia Department of Education, said that this school year, her state’s school districts have the discretion to submit “a body of evidence,” in addition to a student’s score on an English-language-proficiency test, to determine why students no longer need specialized instruction.

What’s not clear, said Jamal Abedi, an education professor at the University of California, Davis, and an expert on the testing of English-language-learners, is how much the federal government plans to dictate the criteria.

“Is it in the hands of the states to make that decision, or is it the federal government’s decision?” he said.

Ms. Doherty, the aide to Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond J. Simon, acknowledged that the notice contains some issues that need further clarification. The department is seeking comment until June 2. She said the department will likely issue a final interpretation this summer, and it could be implemented this coming school year.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal A Bipartisan Bill Aims to Boost AI Education for K-12 Teachers
A new bill would create a grant program at the National Science Foundation focused on AI and K-12 schools.
4 min read
Highway directional sign for AI Artificial Intelligence
Matjaz Boncina/iStock/Getty
Federal K-12 Leaders Denounce Antisemitism But Reject That It's Rampant in Schools
Three school district leaders said they're committed to rooting out antisemitism during a hearing in Congress.
6 min read
From left, David Banks, chancellor of New York Public schools, speaks next to Karla Silvestre, President of the Montgomery Count (Md.) Board of Education, Emerson Sykes, Staff Attorney with the ACLU, and Enikia Ford Morthel, Superintendent of the Berkeley United School District, during a hearing on antisemitism in K-12 public schools, at the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, on May 8, 2024, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
From left, David Banks, chancellor of New York City schools, speaks next to Karla Silvestre, president of the Montgomery County, Md., school board; Emerson Sykes, staff attorney with the ACLU; and Enikia Ford Morthel, superintendent of the Berkeley Unified school district in Berkeley, Calif., during a hearing on antisemitism in K-12 public schools, at the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, on May 8, 2024, in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Federal Miguel Cardona in the Hot Seat: 4 Takeaways From a Contentious House Hearing
FAFSA, rising antisemitism, and Title IX dominated questioning at a U.S. House hearing with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
6 min read
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testifies during a House Committee on Education and Workforce hearing on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testifies during a House Committee on Education and Workforce hearing on Capitol Hill on May 7 in Washington.
Mariam Zuhaib/AP
Federal Arming Teachers Could Cause 'Accidents and More Tragedy,' Miguel Cardona Says
"This is not in my opinion a smart option,” the education secretary said at an EdWeek event.
4 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks during Education Week’s 2024 Leadership Symposium at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Va., on May 2, 2024.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks during Education Week’s 2024 Leadership Symposium at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Va., on May 2, 2024.
Sam Mallon/Education Week