Guide Offers Advice on Setting ELL Standards

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 21, 2012 3 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education has released a guidebook designed to help states set new proficiency standards and academic-achievement targets for English-language learners.

The report, commissioned by the Education Department and written by English-language-learner experts at the American Institutes of Research, the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research, and WestEd, describes empirical methods state policymakers may use to determine exactly what English proficiency means for students, how long it should take students to reach it, and how to factor in students’ proficiency levels when measuring their academic progress.

The guidebook, Exploring Approaches to Setting English-Language Proficiency Performance Criteria and Monitoring English-Learner Progress, is directed at assessment and accountability officials in state departments of education, other senior state education officials, providers of technical assistance to districts, and advisers to education governing boards. Although it’s still in draft form until some time next month, Education Department officials said they do not expect substantive changes.

The guide’s release comes at a key time for states, many of which are in the process of seeking to escape provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act by applying for flexibility waivers. In those applications, states must address how they will hold schools accountable for the language and academic proficiency of English-learners.

It also comes as states grapple with how to adapt the Common Core State Standards so that English-learners may fully access them. In the first batch of states that federal education officials selected for NCLB waivers, seven out of 10 of them had to address shortcomings in their plans for tailoring the more-rigorous standards for English-learners.

Key Questions

The guidebook is the first of four reports to be released as part of a four-year study by the Washington-based American Institutes for Research to evaluate Title III, the section of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that authorizes grants to states and districts to educate English-language learners.

Robert Linquanti, a senior research associate at WestEd, a San Francisco-based research group, and one of the guidebook’s authors, said the new publication is meant to “start the discussion” with state policymakers on three key questions:

• How to determine what the “finish line” is for English-language proficiency;

• How long it should take students to reach that definition of proficiency after accounting for where they started and how long they’ve been receiving services; and

• How to account for English proficiency levels when setting expectations for students’ progress in academic-content areas.

To answer the first question on when a student can be judged to have reached proficiency, the guidebook outlines three analytical methods policymakers can follow and recommends using them all: “decision consistency analysis,” which “analyzes linguistic and academic proficiency-level categorizations and seeks to optimize consistent categorization of [English proficient] students at the state’s academic proficient cut score,” according to the guide; “logistic regression analysis,” which estimates the probability of being proficient on academic-content assessments for each English-language proficiency score; and “descriptive box plot analysis,” which identifies the point of language proficiency when at least half of ELLs are scoring above the academic-content proficient cutoff score.

“In other words, where is that sweet spot where you are not just raising the bar of English-language proficiency, but where content knowledge is actually taking over?” said Mr. Linquanti.

On the second question, the researchers describe two methods states can use to figure out the time frame for an English-learner to reach a certain proficiency standard. On the third, the guide describes three methods to account for students’ proficiency levels when setting their academic progress goals.

All the approaches rely on using data mined from the longitudinal-data systems states are building to track student achievement.

Mr. Linquanti and co-author H. Gary Cook, the research director for the Madison, Wis.-based World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment consortium—part of a research group that is developing new assessments of English proficiency to be aligned with the common standards—advise that states use a combination of the methods they describe. They also stress that the guide is not meant to be the final word on how states set proficiency standards and achievement targets for English-learners.

“What we aimed for here is to lay out some basic groundwork to give folks a strong, empirical base to start from,” Mr. Linquanti said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as Guide Advises States on Setting Standards for ELLs


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