The U.S. Department of Education has granted Florida flexibility in how it assesses English-language learners, bringing an end to a months-long dispute between the federal agency and state officials that had included a threat from Gov. Rick Scott to file a lawsuit.
Federal officials last month agreed to Florida’s request to give its ELL students two years in a U.S. school before factoring their scores on annual English/language arts and mathematics tests into school grades. Florida had sought the two-year testing timeline as part of its waiver from some requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The change contradicts federal rules that demand all children be counted equally in accountability measures. This also marks the first time that the Education Department is relenting on the federal requirement that English-learners’ performance on state content tests be part of school accountability after such students have been enrolled in U.S. schools for one year.
In a Dec. 22 letter to Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, Deborah S. Delisle, the assistant secretary for the office of elementary and secondary education, wrote that the federal department had reconsidered Florida’s request for testing flexibility because the state will still publicly report on performance of recently-arrived English-learners and include their scores in the growth component of the state’s school grading system.
With the move, federal officials are following the lead of state legislators in Florida, who changed the law in 2014 to reflect that students still learning English should not be expected to immediately excel on the state’s annual tests. That law gives students two years in a U.S. school before educators must include their test scores in schools’ annual accountability ratings.
“We are granting this waiver after carefully considering Florida’s request,” said education department spokeswoman Dorie Nolt in a statement.
“The state’s particular approach to accountability for newly arrived English-language-learner students ensures schools have baseline data beginning with each student’s first year in the United States—data that helps inform teaching and extra supports [needed] to help the students succeed—and calls for the state to fully incorporate student growth into its statewide accountability system in the second year of the waiver,” she said.
Earlier this year, the Education Department scolded Florida officials as they renewed the state’s waiver from NCLB requirements, warning that they risked having the waiver revoked if the state did not comply with federal law on using ELL test scores after one year.
The Education Department’s reversal on Florida’s stance on ELL testing could breathe new life into the debate over how schools are judged for serving English-learners, including giving them that extra year of instructional time before testing them for accountability purposes on content in a language they are still learning.
Research indicates that it takes five to seven years for students with no English-language skills to gain fluency.
“In many cases, students fail the test, not because they don’t know the content,” said Jamal Abedi, a professor of education at the University of California, Davis. “It’s because they don’t know the language.”
Federal education officials said Florida’s exemption is not immediately applicable to other states with sizable ELL populations.
“This is one model that other states could look to when they are considering how to have a fair accountability system for ELLs,” Ms. Nolt said.
Ms. Stewart, the state education commissioner, and Gov. Scott praised the Education Department’s decision to reverse course and allow the state to retain the two-year testing timeline it had been using for recently arrived English-learners for its pre-waiver state accountability system.
“Our teachers and schools have made significant strides closing the achievement gap for English-language learners, and it is critical that we stay on the trajectory that has yielded excellent results,” Ms. Stewart said.
The growing number of English-language learners in Florida and elsewhere poses challenges for educators striving to ensure that such students get access to the core curriculum in schools and acquire academic knowledge, as well as English-language skills.
About 1 in 10 Florida students, roughly 250,000, were English-language learners in the 2013-14 academic year.
In the wake of the federal education department’s decision, Florida officials did not specify how many of those students are tested under the requirements of No Child Left Behind.
“I never got a sense of how many kids were going to be affected or the level of proficiency of these students,” said Robert Linquanti, the project director for English-learner evaluation and accountability support at WestEd, a San Francisco-based research group. “What we had here was a debate about fairness.”
Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of the 345,000-student Miami-Dade County school district, said in a statement that the decision brought “reason, respect, and fairness to one of the most fragile groups of students anywhere in America, English-language learners.”
The waiver could be significant for Miami-Dade, the state’s largest school system and home to close to a third of the state’s K-12 English-learner students.
Mari Corugedo, a Miami-Dade teacher, hopes the waiver paves the way for more substantive changes in how the state educates and evaluates its language-learners, including bolstered bilingual instruction.
“Children do need more than a year,” Ms. Corugedo said. “It’s a good start. But in order (for them) to make the transition, we need to strengthen the bilingual programs and step up funding in the schools. That’s the way we make a difference.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2015 edition of Education Week as Fla. Wins Reprieve in Testing of ELLs