Federal

Few States Meet NCLB Goals for English-Learners

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 12, 2010 6 min read
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Only 11 states met their accountability goals for English-language learners under the No Child Left Behind Act in the 2007-08 school year, concludes a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education.

That same school year, 59 percent of school districts or district consortia that receive federal money for English-language-acquisition programs achieved all their goals for ELLs.

Those are some of the findings included in three research briefs released this month by the Washington-based American Institutes for Research. The briefs are precursors to a much more comprehensive study evaluating implementation of Title III, the section of the NCLB law that authorizes aid for English-language-acqusition programs, which is being underwritten with an Education Department grant for $2.7 million over three years.

The briefs do not report what proportion of districts or states met all their goals for ELLs in the 2006-07 school year.

A prior evaluation of Title III implementation by the department found that in the 2005-06 school year, no states met all their goals for such students. That school year, only Louisiana met its goal for adequate yearly progress in math for ELLs. Not one state satisfied its reading goal.

Still, the briefs’ authors and ELL experts say it’s not possible to conclude that the increase over two years from no states to 11 states reaching their goals means that the achievement of such students is improving.

And Education Department officials agreed this week that the research doesn’t provide the kind of information needed to show whether districts and states are increasingly doing a better job of educating English-learners.

But the quality of states’ data on ELLs is improving, they said.

Self-Imposed Objectives

The AIR researchers found that Pennsylvania was the only state out of 50, plus the District of Columbia, that hadn’t reported sufficient data for the 2007-08 school year to the federal government to determine if the state had met its goals for ELLs. During fiscal 2010, Pennsylvania received Title III aid on the condition that it improve its data system for ELLs. A federal Education Department official said it appears that the state will be in compliance with the NCLB law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, in fiscal 2011.

It can’t yet be determined whether ELLs are doing better academically on average based on data collected for the federal law because most states don’t keep longitudinal data, and the category for ELLs changes as students reclassified as fluent in English move out of that category, said Jennifer O’Day, a managing research scientist for the AIR.

In addition, the research briefs point out, great variability exists between states, and even within some states, regarding the definition of ELLs and whether English-proficiency or academic-proficiency goals are high or low.

James Taylor, the project director for the briefs as well as the larger national evaluation of Title III, said, “It’s impossible to know whether these [11] states performed better than any other states in meeting the needs of ELL students.”

All that can be said, he explained, is that those states met the objectives they had set for themselves. Those states are Alabama, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Nevada, New Jersey, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

They satisfied the objectives for progress in English, attainment of fluency in English, and demonstration of proficiency on state tests in reading and math.

Mr. Taylor noted that it’s not clear if Texas technically met its goal for progress in English because the state changed tests to measure that goal between the 2006-07 and 2007-08 school years. The other 10 states clearly met all three goals, he said.

Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University who specializes in ELLs, said the fact that 11 states met their objectives shows that “it’s not an altogether unrealistic goal to have standards that combine academic content and language” for ELLs as the federal law requires states to do.

“We’re getting better data [on ELLs], but it certainly doesn’t merit an A or a B,” he said.

One aspect of accountability-data collection that needs to be fixed in the reauthorization of the law, Mr. Hakuta said, is that states need to do a better job of tracking former ELLs’ progress.

“Unless you really understand the educational trajectory of the students, even if you report disaggregated data for ELLs, you can’t trust the data,” he said.

He also said it’s hard to draw conclusions about whether states or districts are doing a better job nationally in educating English-learners because states keep changing their objectives for such students.

Ms. O’Day and Mr. Taylor said their bigger study will attempt to provide insight on whether the academic achievement of ELLs is improving nationally. To that end, they are studying a set of states that have longitudinal student data. States are encouraged by federal education officials to collect such information, but the federal law doesn’t require them to do so, according to the researchers.

Accountability Changes

Kathleen Leos, the director of the Education Department’s office of English-language acquisition during President George W. Bush’s administration, said the research briefs tell her that some states are seriously lacking in fulfilling the requirements of the law for ELLs.

“I don’t get the sense there is a comprehensive accountability system in place within states, much less among states,” she said.

Ms. Leos said she’s concerned about information in the report that shows states have continually changed the cutoff scores they use to determine language or academic-content proficiency, the definitions of cohorts of students, and other key factors in their accountability systems. “If the system is flexible and moving, there is really no way to see if ELLs are achieving or not,” she said.

She contends that the NCLB law is clear about what states need to do, but she questioned whether federal officials are properly overseeing implementation of the law. The Bush administration, she said, was “soft in the beginning to give people time to understand what the legislation said and what it meant.”

But then in 2006 and 2007, she said, the Education Department sent letters to 22 states saying they were receiving federal funds on the condition that they address certain issues regarding ELLs.

Ms. Leos maintains that the research briefs show that officials of the Obama administration have been lax in monitoring implementation of Title III.

“It’s eight years later [after passage of the NCLB law],” Ms. Leos said. “There should be no more excuses. Every state should be able to report on the academic progress of every English-language learner in the state, even with the budget crisis.”

Education Department officials said they haven’t been soft at all on states. They said that the Bush administration provided guidance for states on how to implement goals for ELLs under Title III for the first time in 2008, through a notice of “interpretation.” States need to ensure their English-language-proficiency tests administered this spring comply with that interpretation.

Department officials said they have been reviewing whether states are in compliance with the interpretaion and are sending them letters when they are not, telling them to fix any problems.

In the coming months, the department will provide Congress with a two-year evaluation of Title III, as required by the law.

A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2010 edition of Education Week as Few States Meet NCLB Goals for English-Learners

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