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Grant Rules Push for Common Criteria for ELL Pupils

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 26, 2011 3 min read

States that join together to apply for federal funding to create English-language-proficiency tests as part of the Common Core State Standards Initiative will have to agree on a common definition for English-language learners and criteria to determine when such students must leave special programs to learn English.

Under final regulations published last week for a $10.7 million grants competition to enable state consortia to devise a new generation of tests, participating states must apply an exact definition to identify students as English-language learners and reclassify them as proficient in the language. The notice was published April 19 in the Federal Register, and states have until June 3 to apply.

The federal government already requires the two consortia crafting assessments pegged to the common-core content standards to have a “common definition” for ELLs. Those two consortia are the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The new regulations appear to be a step further toward bringing more consistency to the instruction of English-language learners nationwide. (“Draft Rules Could Shift ELL Policies,” April 6, 2011.)

“It will be interesting to see how [English-learner] definitional criteria line up across states participating in different consortia combinations,” said Robert Linquanti, a senior research associate for WestEd, a San Francisco-based research and development organization, in an email. “Certainly, it’s going to force a national policy conversation on what we mean by [English learner], and this is a good thing.” He noted that some states, including California, haven’t standardized the definition for an English-language learner among school districts within their states.

Unlike regular English/language arts tests, which measure students’ mastery of skills typically taught in a mainstream English class, such as analyzing literature or applying reading strategies, English-proficiency tests measure student progress in learning to speak, listen, read, and write in English. They’re used to assess annual progress for ELLs in acquiring English, as well as to help educators decide when such students are ready to move out of ELL status.

In its notice last week, the U.S. Department of Education says only two consortia are expected to be awarded grants for the new English-proficiency tests.

The competition was narrowed to two awards, explained Carlos Martinez, the group leader for standards, assessments, and accountability for the department, because “that’s how far the money will go this round.” He said it’s possible that only one applicant will win the competition. “The dimensions of our request for applications is so big and there are so many new things on it, we wanted to make sure it was funded in a manner that would ensure success,” he said.

Unlike the draft rules published Jan. 7, the final regulations do not require consortia applying for the money to have a minimum of 15 states as members. Instead, the federal government will give an extra 15 points in reviewing applications for consortia that meet a 15-state minimum.

Mr. Martinez said the Education Department must honor what’s in education law and keep the competition open to single states that might apply, but he said the extra 15 points given to consortia with at least 15 states “is nothing to ignore.” He added, “We really want to encourage states to work collaboratively on this.”

Coordination Required

He said the department also expects the winners of the English-proficiency assessments competition to coordinate with the two consortia writing the content tests aligned with the common-core standards. The April 19 notice says winners of the grants to craft English-proficiency assessments are required to coordinate with the Education Department’s Race to the Top program and “actively participate in any applicable technical-assistance activities conducted or facilitated” by the department.

Diane August, a senior research scientist affiliated with the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington-based nonprofit organization focused on improving the teaching of languages, said in an interview last week that it could benefit ELLs for states in a consortium to come up with a common definition and exit criteria but only if the standards used for English-language proficiency are “in rigorous alignment” with states’ academic content standards and assessments. She’s worried, she said, that states will set the criteria for ELLs to exit special programs too low.

“One of my concerns is that if you have a lot of states participating, to get buy-in, you compromise,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2011 edition of Education Week as Grant Rules Require States to Develop Common ELL Criteria

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