Consistent ELL Guides Proposed

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 09, 2008 6 min read
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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.


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