Education Officials Back Down on Some Proposed ELL Mandates

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 17, 2008 3 min read
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Bowing to complaints from state officials and advocates for English-language learners, the federal government has published a final—and more flexible—“interpretation” of how states should carry out the section of the No Child Left Behind Act that applies to such students.

In particular, the Department of Education backed off on what critics saw as overly rigid rules for measuring and reporting whether students are learning English under Title III of the law, which authorizes funds for English-language-acquisition programs. (See “Consistent ELL Guides Proposed,” May 14, 2008.)

Officials from 24 states submitted comments urging the department to soften the proposal, which—while not a formal regulation—effectively determines how states are expected to implement Title III.

“We did take very seriously the feedback we got from states and advocates of limited-English-proficient students. We have made some adjustments,” said Kathyrn M. Doherty, a special assistant to the Education Department’s deputy secretary, Raymond J. Simon, in a meeting this week with state officials who oversee ELLs.

Ms. Doherty laid out the expectations of the final interpretation in a nearly two-hour session at the meeting. She stressed that how well states follow the interpretation will be a factor when the department monitors their compliance with Title III.

The department’s May 2 draft proposal would have required states to use the same criteria for deciding whether English-language learners are proficient in English under Title III as they do in deciding whether a child is defined as an ELL under a different section of the law. That other section, Title I, applies to disadvantaged students, a category that includes many ELLs.

Officials in California—which educates about a third of the nation’s 5.1 million English-language learners—submitted strongly worded criticism of that proposal. (See “Proposed ELL Guidelines Criticized as Too Rigid,” Education Week, June 11, 2008.)

The proposed interpretation suggested “a completely new way” of defining English-language-proficiency goals under the law, wrote state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and California state board of education President Theodore R. Mitchell.

Other Californians expressed concern that the proposed requirement would lead to so much standardization that school districts would no longer have the discretion to rely on parent input and teacher judgment in deciding when students should leave programs.

Revisions Made

In the final interpretation, published Oct. 17 in the Federal Register, the Education Department merely “strongly encourages” states to match the two criteria. Ms. Doherty said she would like to see states standardize criteria among their districts for when ELLs are proficient enough to leave programs, even though the final interpretation doesn’t technically address that.

In addition, the federal government backed down on a proposed reporting requirement under Title III.

The department’s draft proposal would have required states to find a way to report students’ progress in learning English even for those students who had not taken their state’s English-language-proficiency test twice.

Ms. Doherty said the federal government was looking for ways to ensure that the states report progress for all ELLs. The final interpretation permits states to continue to leave out students who have not taken the tests twice.

New Requirements

Federal officials did stick by some requirements in their earlier proposal.

States will not be allowed to “bank” from one year to the next the test scores of English-language learners who pass one of the four areas of their state’s English-language-proficiency test: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. States must give students all four sections of the test each year until they pass all of them at the same time.

Also, in setting targets for ELLs, states will only be allowed to consider how long those students have been enrolled in English-language programs, not factors such as students’ grade level or what stage they are at in learning English.

State officials at this week’s meeting generally saw the revisions as an improvement, despite the new requirements.

Steven A. Ross, a Title III consultant for the Nevada Department of Education and the president of the National Association of State Title III Directors, was pleased that federal officials were willing to allow some flexibility.

With a new administration on the horizon after next month’s election, “I would have followed the parts [of the original proposal] that are convenient and I would have probably procrastinated where I could,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2008 edition of Education Week as Education Officials Back Down on Some Proposed ELL Mandates


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