Debate Rages Over Accountability for English Learners in Florida

By Lesli A. Maxwell — May 23, 2012 2 min read
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UPDATE: Gerard Robinson, Florida’s education commissioner, has issued a response to the mounting criticism over how English-learners will be treated in the state’s newly revamped accountability system, in a letter to Tampa Bay Times education blogger Jeff Solochek, who is keeping close tabs on the controversy.

Florida has recently become the epicenter of a big tussle over how best to hold schools accountable for the academic progress of English-language learners, and there are undoubtedly lessons and insights for other states to consider, especially as many of them revamp their accountability systems in pursuit of waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind law.

And that’s exactly how the debate in the Sunshine State got started. As one of the first states to be granted a waiver from NCLB by the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year, Florida had to promise to re-do its waiver plan to more fully include the performance of English learners and students with disabilities into its school grading system—which is at the heart of its accountability system. When the state board of education voted in February to include the scores of ELLs on the FCAT (the state’s assessment system) after just one year of instruction, school district leaders, teachers who work with ELLs, and advocates protested, saying that schools with high numbers of English-learners would be penalized unfairly.

The grades that individual schools receive in Florida these days have some high stakes well beyond the realm of education accountability, including the recovery of real estate markets.

To assuage those concerns, state schools chief Gerard Robinson named a task force to make recommendations on how to more fairly include ELLs and special education students. That group was split into two subcommittees—one on ELLs, the other on students with disabilities—which drew up some detailed, nuanced recommendations.

Explaining that the U.S. Department of Education would reject many of the recommendations as incompatible with its rules in the waiver program, Mr. Robinson mostly disregarded—for now at least—the recommendations of the task force and kept in place the new rule that ELLs’ FCAT scores would be included in a school’s grade after just one year of instruction.

That decision has created a furor of sorts, prompting some push back from some of the state’s most prominent Hispanic politicians. Now we’ll have to see if the commissioner, still somewhat new to the Florida scene, does anything differently.

Ester de Jong, a professor of bilingual education at the University of Florida and a task force member, told me that a fundamental problem, in her view, is that the commissioner and the U.S. Department of Education seem to be suggesting that “full inclusion” of ELLs in the accountability system means testing them and factoring in their results just like any other student, without regard for their wildly varying levels of English proficiency. “This is a case of where ‘same’ is not ‘equitable,’” she told me.

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