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Draft Rules Point Way to Consistency in ELL Policies

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 04, 2011 6 min read
A kindergarten class gets a lesson on vowels at Solano Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles. With the largest numbers of ELLs in the country, the district could be influential in state consortia forming to develop English-language-proficiency tests pegged to common standards.

The proposed rules attached to new federal grants aimed at helping states collaborate in creating new assessments aligned with the common academic standards are likely to spur dramatic shifts in policies for English-language learners in school districts nationwide.

U.S. Department of Education officials are poised to release a final notice of the requirements for the $10.3 million grant competition that will ultimately lead to the creation of a new generation of English-language-proficiency tests developed under the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Unlike regular English/language arts tests, which measure students’ mastery of skills typically taught in a mainstream English class, such as analyzing literature or applying reading strategies, English-proficiency tests measure progress of students in learning to speak, listen, read, and write in English. They are used to help determine whether students are ready to exit special programs for English learners.

The draft notice for the competition published Jan. 7 in the Federal Register contained a number of requirements that could translate into an overhaul of ELL policy in quite a few states. It says that any consortium applying for a grant must have a minimum of 15 states, that scores from the new tests may be used to gauge the effectiveness of teachers and principals, and that participating states must decide on a “common” criteria for the definition of ELLs and when such students should exit special programs to learn the language.

Among the 12 public comments filed in response to the notice are complaints about all of those proposed requirements, some from influential civil rights or advocacy groups.

A ‘Seamless’ Effort

A couple of commenters asserted as well that the winning groups of states should be required to collaborate with the two consortia that are developing the regular content tests in English/language arts and mathematics to align with the common-core standards.

“It is important to ensure that the development of the new ELP assessment be directly embedded in the work of developing assessments for the [common-core standards], and that the state content assessments and the ELP assessment-development work be a seamless, integrated effort rather than the ELP development work being an addendum after the fact,” wrote eight researchers who are experts on ELLs in their comments about the notice. Those researchers included big names in the field such as Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University, and Jennifer O’Day, a managing research scientist for the American Institutes for Research, who works out of an office in San Mateo, Calif.

If the proposed rules stay intact, their level of prescription could lead to a huge impact in ELL policies in school districts and states across the country.

Combined with earlier grants awarded to two consortia that are developing the regular content tests to align with common-core standards, which require that participating states come up with a common definition for ELLs and the same test accommodations for such students, they could arguably lead to more consistency across the country in how ELL students are taught.

Varied Practices

Currently, states vary widely in how they define ELLs and in the criteria they use for determining when students are ready to exit ELL programs. Arizona, for example, moves ELLs out of special programs to learn English when they obtain a particular score on the state’s English-proficiency test. California, on the other hand, permits school districts to set their own exit criteria, which may include teacher or parent judgment. ( “English-Language Learners,” March 15, 2011.)

California will likely be a heavyweight in the national movement to create more consistency between states on policies for English-language learners if it carries through with its plan to participate in the grant competition. The state’s schools educate more than a quarter of the nation’s 5.3 million English-language learners.

Deborah V.H. Sigman, the deputy state superintendent for the California Department of Education, said state officials are seriously considering joining other states to submit an application because creating a new ELP test only for California, as the state did with the California English Language Development Test, or CELDT, is costly.

Two kindergartners share a book during English lessons at the Solano Avenue school.

“Working with other states on these matters is a different approach than California has taken,” she said. “I would hate for us to not be part of the conversation.”

She perceives that the variation in where school districts set the bar for students to exit special programs is a concern to federal officials. She speculates it’s one reason the proposed rules insist on a common definition for ELLs among the states that join together to develop the tests.

Ms. Sigman said a loss of flexibility by school districts to decide when ELLs should move out of that status has pros and cons. “The local districts are probably in the best place to make decisions about individual kids. I hesitate to second-guess them.”

But, she added, “having said that, I think we should take the opportunity to create an assessment that might make [such decisions] more consistent across districts, so that everyone is on the same page.”

Multiple Measures

Not only is California the state with the most ELLs but it is home to Los Angeles Unified School District, the school district with the largest number of ELLs. About one-third, or 220,000, of the school system’s 678,000 students fall into that category.

Judy Elliott, the district’s chief academic officer, said she supports California officials in their plan to join the “national movement” to create more consistency on ELL policy. She said she has faith that they will advocate for “multiple measures” in determining when ELLs should leave programs, and not go with a single measure, such as Arizona has done.

The Los Angeles district uses teacher judgment in decisions to move ELLs out of special programs by factoring in students’ grades, as well as scores on the state’s regular English-content test and the CELDT. Also, the district seeks parental approval to move an ELL out of programs to learn the language.

Several ELL experts who commented on the Jan. 7 grant-competition proposal highlighted the complexity of having states agree on a common definition for ELLs or common exit criteria.

“Specifically, what is meant by the word ‘common?’ ” wrote H. Gary Cook, the research director for the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment consortium, which counts 24 states plus the District of Columbia as members. Those states use the English-proficiency test created by the consortium, but they don’t use the same definition or exit criteria for ELLs.

“For example,” said Mr. Cook, “by common definition of [English-learner], does it mean that the consortium states will have the same home-language survey, the same placement tool, and the same screening procedures for [English-learners] in all schools and districts within consortium states?”

Meanwhile, the two consortia creating regular content tests to align with the common-core standards are taking small steps to consider the needs of ELLs. Both consortia plan to use universal design principles to make test items accessible to ELLs and other students with special learning needs.

Joe Willhoft, the executive director for the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, said his group has been awarded a federal grant of $9.95 million in addition to its basic test-development grant to translate its math test into American Sign Language, Spanish, and three other languages yet to be determined.

The other test-development consortium, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, was poised at press time to announce that several well-known ELL experts are serving on its technical working groups, according to Laura M. Slover, the senior vice president of Achieve Inc. and the project manager for her nonprofit’s work with the consortium.

Neither Mr. Willhoft or Ms. Slover could point to substantial work yet by their member states to come up with a common definition for ELLs.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2011 edition of Education Week as Draft Rules Could Shift ELL Policies

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