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Guide: Tying Common Core and English-Proficiency

By Lesli A. Maxwell — October 09, 2012 4 min read
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As school districts forge ahead in putting the common academic standards into practice, many states are still revising or creating new English-language-proficiency standards to spell out for teachers the sophisticated language skills that their English-learner students will need to succeed with the rigorous new academic expectations.

To help states with that task, the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers late last month released a detailed set of guidelines created by English-language-learner experts and some of the lead writers of the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and mathematics, as well as the Next Generation Science Standards. The new guide, or framework, as it’s formally called, is designed to be a road map for states as they update, revamp, and rewrite the English-language-proficiency standards that teachers will use as guideposts to help ELL students acquire the academic language necessary to learn the new content.

“The implementation of the common core and the Next Generation Science Standards is going to be a heavy lift for a lot of kids, and probably most significantly for English-language learners,” said Andrés Henríquez, an education program officer at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which supported the development of the new framework.

“We want to make sure that states are thinking about what they have to do to make sure that their ELLs are well supported,” he said. “It’s critical for all of us to think about how we educate these students for the next generation.”

‘Correspond’ or Align?

The release of the framework comes at an optimal time for many states, which, under the requirements of waivers they have received from the U.S. Department of Education to ease provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, must have English-language-proficiency standards that “correspond” to the common core. Thirty-three states have already had their waivers approved; seven more have applied.

“For states, it’s tricky to know what ‘correspond’ means exactly,” said Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University education professor and an expert on English-language learners who advised the group of writers that developed the framework. “What the framework writers have done is take the common core and the Next Generation Science Standards and identified the language demands in each of those content standards and described them.”

Many states have already been moving ahead with updating their English-language-proficiency standards.

California, home to 1.6 million ELLs, is in the final stages of revising its English-language-proficiency standards so that they correspond with the common standards. Florida is also revising its proficiency standards, as is New York. And the 28 states that belong to the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment consortium, or WIDA—representing a total of more than 1 million ELLs—now have a new edition of English-language-development standards that makes clear connections between the content standards of the common core across every grade level and the academic language that teachers will need to use to teach across varying levels of English proficiency.

Earlier Attempt

Title III of the No Child Left Behind law calls for states to have English-language-proficiency standards that are, in theory, to serve as a bridge to the language skills ELLs need to fully access and meet the achievement demands in the mishmash of academic-content standards that states had been using before the common core.

But many states didn’t actually create specific language standards by English-proficiency level that connected to academic content, said H. Gary Cook, an associate research scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who is part of the team that developed the new framework.

“That’s why we wanted to create a tool for states to use to help them do this well,” Mr. Cook said.

The 105-page guide is highly technical and is meant primarily for the state-level policymakers who are overseeing the revamping of English-language-proficiency standards, Mr. Cook said.

But the guide includes extensive tables that describe, for each content area, the types of practices—such as arguing by using evidence in English/language arts, for example—that students must be able to handle. The tables describe the language demands behind each of those practices and outline how teachers might help ELLs meet those demands in the classroom.

“Those tables are the meat of the framework,” Mr. Cook said.

Guadalupe Valdés, a Stanford University education professor who was also part of the team that devised the framework, said the guide is meant to help the writers of English-language-proficiency standards in state departments of education to “think about the many ways that people use language in the classroom and keep that image in their heads as they do this work.”

For example, Ms. Valdés said, using evidence to make an argument can play out in several ways for ELLs, regardless of their levels of English proficiency. Students can work in small groups to talk about evidence for an argument, listen for evidence in what their teacher or a fellow student says, or look for evidence in their reading, she said.

“Ultimately, what we want to see happen is that English-learners are getting opportunities to do all of these more-rigorous practices even with less-than-perfect language,” she said. “Intellectually, they are able to engage in all of these practices.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 2012 edition of Education Week as Guide Advises on Tying English Proficiency to Common Core

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