DeVos’ Approval of Florida’s ESSA Plan Is Bad for English-Learners, Advocates Say

By Corey Mitchell — September 27, 2018 3 min read
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While seeking Betsy DeVos’ approval for its federal Every Student Succeeds Act plan, Florida ventured that the state’s English-only laws would provide it cover from a new federal push on English-language-learner education.

The gamble paid off.

Florida, home to an estimated 300,000 English-learners, will not translate its state tests into Spanish or any other language. For some states, developing tests in languages other than English could prove costly.

Language in ESSA, the federal education law, directs states to “make every effort” to develop statewide tests in students’ first languages if they constitute a significant portion of the student population. The law, however, does not explicitly require the native-language assessments, which would measure students’ knowledge and understanding of state academic content standards in that primary language.

Until winning U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ endorsement this week, Florida’s accountability plan was the last of any state and U.S. territory to get her stamp of approval.

The Education Department had rejected five previous iterations of Florida’s plan, but the native-language tests were apparently not the snag.

“Florida’s plan meets the requirements of the law, so I am pleased to approve it,” said Secretary DeVos in a statement. “As we move into the next phase, we look forward to working with states as they bring their plans on paper to life and use the flexibilities afforded in ESSA to innovate and improve educational opportunities for all students.”

Callie Kozlak, field campaign manager for the Education Policy Project at UnidosUS, criticized DeVos’ decision, calling it a “disappointment.”

Not only did Florida’s ESSA plan bypass the law’s requirement for native-language tests, Kozlak and other English-learner activists argued, it also set up a separate accountability system for considering English-language proficiency, instead of incorporating it into the state’s larger accountability system. Kozlak said that UnidosUs and other groups will closely monitor whether the states’ ELLs receive the support and resources they need.

Florida was not the only state where concerns about the treatment of ELLs have been raised.

An analysis conducted by Achieve and UnidosUs determined that more than half of states’ ESSA plans intentionally set lower academic goals for English-learners, at least six others state plans bypassed key provisions of the federal education law, and nearly 20 percent of the plans allow schools to earn high ratings even if English-learners are struggling.

UnidosUs and other groups will closely monitor whether educators in Florida and the other states provide the support and resources that English-learners need, Kozlak said.

While recent research from the Migration Policy Institute has found that using an English-learners’ home language in school can be beneficial, Florida has adopted a different approach.

In its ESSA plan, the state maintains that giving assessments to students in their native languages would impede their ability to demonstrate their knowledge of English.

“Because the content is taught in English, the most—indeed, the only—valid and reliable assessment of the students’ proficiency of the content must also be conducted in English,” the state’s ESSA plan reads. “In sum, Florida, which has one of the largest populations of ELLs, has found that it can best serve its population of non-native English language students through a comprehensive program of teaching, assessing, and, where necessary, providing additional assistance to such students in an English-language environment.”

Florida is one of at least seven states that opted not to offer native-language assessments, with some making the argument that the costs of the tests would outweigh any potential benefits. But none of them have as many English-learners as the Sunshine State, where more than 10 percent of all K-12 students are classified as English-learners.

In certain parts of the state, including south Florida, English-learners are a much larger portion of the student population: One in four students in the Miami-Dade County school system, the largest district in the state and one of the 10 largest in the country, are ELLs.

Here’s a look at Florida’s plan. Details about the state’s stance on native-language assessments begins on page 7.

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