Special Report
Federal

ESSA’s Impact for English-Learners Unclear

Advocates are keeping close tabs on states over concerns about resources, staff, and know-how to meet the law’s mandates.
By Corey Mitchell — December 30, 2016 4 min read

Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education hasn’t answered all the questions or allayed concerns from civil rights and Latino advocacy groups about how the Every Student Succeeds Act will alter education for the nation’s nearly 5 million English-language learners.

Under the year-old law, states will develop their own ELL accountability systems to measure English-language development progress and track the number of students who become English proficient.

That doesn’t sit well with some ELL advocacy groups, because they’re worried states won’t have the resources, staff, or know-how to do that well.

“There’s always a concern that there isn’t the infrastructure available in some areas to serve the diverse range of students that school districts now have,” said Luis Torres, the director of policy and legislation for the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Because of that, keeping a close watch on states will be paramount because ELLs are a subgroup that is “often viewed as powerless,” said Thomas Saenz, the president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“They are likely to be neglected,” Saenz said. “That retreat from a strong federal role could have detrimental effects.”

Role of Proficiency Tests

A major concern is that the federal guidance on ESSA’s provisions regarding English-learners, issued in the fall, paves the way for more states to rely solely on English-language-proficiency tests to determine when to exit students from ELL status, a move that would eliminate the use of state test results and other evidence of classroom performance in English-learner program exit decisions.

Educators who work directly with English-learners should play a major role in determining when, and if, the students no longer need the specialized services, guidance from the Council of Chief State School Officers recommends.

Close to 30 states rely on a single benchmark—results on an English-language-proficiency exam—to determine which English-learners are reclassified as English proficient, while only 15 states use teacher input or evaluation.

The recommendations from the federal government, while not binding, could diminish the voice of districts and teachers in deciding when students leave programs specifically aimed at them, advocates argue. CCSSO makes the case that relying on a single, high-stakes assessment is problematic, and that states should rely on two or more measures to determine when students are ready to exit English-learner status.

Deciding not to use multiple measures to determine if English-learners are proficient in academic and social English is “ironic because those are [already] the most-tested kids,” said Gabriela Uro, the director of English-language-learner policy and research at the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based organization of big-city school systems.

If students are reclassified on the basis of one score on an English-proficiency test and are thrust into mainstream classes before they are ready, the challenges they face in meeting achievement standards could be magnified, advocates say.

“We are using a very blunt instrument to exit a wholesale group of kids who, when they end up in mainstream, may still need services,” Uro said.

Guidance Details

The final ESSA accountability regulations mandate that states develop a timeline for ELLs to become proficient in English and exit the specialized services they receive. To that end, the U.S. Department of Education’s recent guidance made it clear that states are allowed to use their Title III funds to help identify ELLs who are struggling, make sure their English-language-proficiency tests match up with English-language-proficiency standards, and align state content standards with English-language-proficiency standards.

The new law’s testing regulations also require states to try and provide students with tests in commonly spoken languages. Few states offer these tests in languages other than Spanish.

Districts can even use Title III funds to help notify parents that their child is an English-learner and help them better understand what services the designation brings.

States and districts can also use their Title III money to help meet some new transparency and reporting requirements in ESSA that are aimed at developing a better understanding of ELLs and former ELLs. States and districts must report the percentage of students identified as long-term English-learners—those students who have attended school in the United States for five years or more without being reclassified as proficient in English.

Tracking Performance

Districts and states must also track the performance of former English-learners for four years to “determine whether they are performing academically on par with their never-EL peers or whether gaps in achievement remain.”

Tracking this data will help educators better judge the effectiveness of English-learner services and district and state policies around how and when students are determined to no longer need language services, the guidance states.

And states and districts now need to make it possible for researchers and the public to see how those who fall into more than one subgroup of students, including English-learners with learning disabilities, are progressing.

Noting that “ELLs are a highly diverse student population,” the guidance also recommends tracking the performance of English-language learners of other subgroups, including students with gaps in their formal education and those who have recently arrived in the United States.

Saenz praised the Obama administration’s efforts to ensure educational equity for ELLs and the willingness of the Education Department’s office for civil rights to investigate complaints filed on behalf of ELLs or parents with limited English proficiency.

“I don’t know if we can expect that from the incoming [Trump] administration,” Saenz said.

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