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English-Learners and ESSA: Many States Are Lowering Academic Goals, Advocates Charge

By Corey Mitchell — May 30, 2018 3 min read
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Many states’ plans for educating English-language learners under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act fall short of equity and send clear signals on how they value the educational progress of the students, an analysis by Achieve and UnidosUS finds.

A pair of policy briefs prepared by the organizations reveal that more than half of states’ ESSA plans intentionally set lower academic goals for English-learners, at least seven states have plans that flout key provisions of the federal education law, and nearly 20 percent of state plans allow schools to earn high ratings even if English-learners are struggling.

A coalition of civil rights groups have already accused U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos of approving plans that violate the law and don’t account for the needs of vulnerable student groups such as English-learners.

Now, with DeVos’ proposal to scrap the federal office of English-language acquisition, the content of state ESSA plans could play an even more significant role in determining the quality of education for ELL students across the country. To that end, Achieve, a Washington-based group that helps states strengthen academic standards, and UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Latino civil rights organization, offered a series of recommendations that states can consider to shore up their ESSA plans.

“Equity for a historically underserved student group begins with states’ own expectations for their success,” one of the policy briefs states. “States’ goals for English-learners not only send a powerful signal to students, parents, and communities about how the state is prioritizing the success of ELs, but also provide a window into the state’s long-term strategy for how they aim to serve this group of students.”

Here are some key findings from the briefs, which examine how states set goals for English-learners and factor the importance of English-language proficiency in their ESSA plans :


  • Seven states—Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Montana, South Carolina, and Tennessee—do not provide native-language assessments or testing accommodations for their English-learners in any content area. That’s despite the fact that states must “make every effort” to develop statewide assessments in students’ first languages if they constitute a significant portion of the student population. Last fall, Education Week wrote about Florida and other states with ‘English-only’ laws that don’t offer tests in other languages.
  • Twenty-nine states set lower academic goals for their English-learners than other student subgroups. In the analysis, Iowa tops the list of states setting “drastically lower expectations” for English-learners, followed by New Hampshire and Utah.
  • Nineteen states expect students to become English-proficient in five years. Wisconsin provides English-learners up to eight years to reach proficiency. Most research on English-language acquisition indicates that it takes between four and seven years to learn the language.
  • The majority of states are using the WIDA Access for ELLs 2.0 as their measure for English-language proficiency, but those states have vastly different definitions of success on the assessment. Education Week explored how changes to the widely used English proficiency exam led to a downturn in student test scores last year and the challenges those declines presented for school districts and states.
  • States set widely varying weights for English-language proficiency in their ESSA plans. The analysis found that Georgia’s accountability system assigned the least value to progress toward English-language proficiency. That means the state could “fail to support” its English-learner population and still merit a high overall rating.

So far, DeVos and her team have approved plans for 44 states and the District of Columbia, according to the latest tally from Education Week‘s Politics K-12 team. Civil rights groups are keeping an eye on whether DeVos approves Florida’s plan.

Lawmakers in that state don’t want to hold schools accountable for how well students perform on English-language-proficiency exams or provide some exams in students’ native language, two key provisions of ESSA that amounted to a political victory for the nation’s large English-learner and immigrant community.

Here’s a look at the briefs:

Achieve UnidosUS ESSA EL Goals 1 Final by corey_c_mitchell on Scribd

Achieve UnidosUS ESSA ELP Indicator 1 Final by corey_c_mitchell on Scribd

Related Stories on ESSA and English-Language Learners

Will Your State’s ESSA Plan Work for English-Language Learners?

More Testing is Forecast for Nation’s ELL Students

ESSA: Ed. Dept. Releases English-Language-Learner Guidance

Image Credit: Achieve and UnidosUS

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


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