Push Is On for Common Ways to Identify ELLs

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 26, 2013 8 min read
Students change classes last week at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco, where students who are English-learners come from a variety of backgrounds. In California, more than 1,000 school districts can make their own rules for deciding when an English-learner has reached proficiency in the language.
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The many ways of identifying which students are English-learners and when they reach proficiency in the language could meld into a more uniform process as a result of the move to common standards and assessments, a profound shift that could drive changes in instruction and provision of resources, experts say.

As two big groups of states work to design shared assessments for the new standards, they are laboring to establish shared definitions of what it means to be an English-language learner and when those students no longer need language instruction. That would represent a massive change from current practice, which finds districts and states using unique definitions for ELLs and widely varying criteria for reclassifying them as fluent.

Getting states to agree on such a complex and often politicized issue will require a deliberate, multiyear process, state policy officials and ELL experts say.

Among the advantages of doing so, they say: true comparability among states for how well they are teaching English-learners and more confidence that ELLs are served equitably by public schools, regardless of where they live.

In California, where more than 1,000 school districts can make their own rules for deciding when an English-learner has reached proficiency in the language, a student who meets one district’s criteria can easily fall short in another.

The same is true between states when it comes to identifying English-learners. A student flagged for English-language-acquisition services in Texas, for example, may not be judged the same way in Arizona.

“Before common core, this would have been virtually impossible because of the variation among content standards in the states,” said Robert Linquanti, a senior research associate at WestEd, a San Francisco-based research group, referring to the Common Core State Standards that have been adopted by all but four states. “But because of the shared alignment, there is now a reasonable shot at doing this.”

State Pushback?

Mr. Linquanti and H. Gary Cook, an associate research scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, are finalizing a set of recommendations to states about how to proceed toward developing a common definition of English-learners. They presented their initial recommendations to state education officials earlier this month in Atlanta.

One national education analyst said she wouldn’t rule out pushback from states, which might see such a move as further erosion of their authority over education policy.

“While a common definition may be very logical and make perfect sense, and states may choose to come around, I think the risks continue to ratchet up that people are going to say, ‘Enough. This is our business,’ ” said Kathy Christie, a vice president at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

The U.S. Department of Education is a main driver behind the momentum toward defining English-learners in a common way.

Under its requirements for states in either of the common-assessment groups being funded through federal Race to the Top money—the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC—participants must agree to a uniform definition of an English-learner.

That requirement is the same for the states that also are part of either of the two federally funded groups developing new English-language proficiency exams to measure ELLs’ progress toward meeting the language demands in the common standards. Those two consortia are Assessment Services Supporting ELs through Technology Systems, or ASSETS, and English Language Proficiency Assessment for the 21st Century, or ELPA 21.

Timetable for Rollouts

The new common assessments will roll out in the 2014-15 school year, with the new English-language-proficiency tests expected to debut in 2015-16.

Though membership in the four testing consortia remains in flux, many states belong to at least one of the Race to the Top-funded consortia and one of the groups creating the new English-language- proficiency tests.

To help the states work together on this issue across all four testing groups, the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers last year convened an ELL assessment task force to make recommendations. That task force is composed of members of all four testing consortia, as well as experts on the assessment of special education students.

“The more that things can be standardized across the consortia, the better and easier it will be for states to implement the assessments,” said Scott Norton, the director of standards, assessment, and accountability for the CCSSO. “And as students move around and between states, having a common understanding of who they are and how well they are doing is really important.”

Having a shared definition of English-learners is also an important component to the work that Smarter Balanced and PARCC test designers are doing to decide what types of testing accommodations ELLs should get. This is another politically difficult task because of the differences among states on the current supports that are allowed for English-learners taking standardized tests.

Mr. Norton, however, cautioned that reaching consensus will be complicated. Each state has its own political and policy environment to consider, and policies and practices around English-learners may be deeply ingrained.

“Even assuming that everyone wants to agree on this, it’s not going to be a simple matter,” Mr. Norton said.

Crazy-Quilt Approach

With such a crazy-quilt policy and practice approach to English-learners, comparability between states and even districts is a major challenge.

For example, the English-language-proficiency test currently given in California gives an even weight in scoring the four tested domains of listening, speaking, reading, and writing, at 25 percent each. In the numerous states that use the assessment developed by the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment, or WIDA, proficiency is more heavily weighted toward students’ literacy performance in the reading and writing domains. In Texas, for example, how an ELL performs on the reading domain is the largest determining factor for judging proficiency.

“If you take a look at the national collection of data now and try to say something about ELLs across the country, you really can’t,” said Mr. Cook, the University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher. “There is difficulty even trying to understand what an English-language learner is at that level.”

The lack of uniformity also leads to a distribution of federal Title III funds—aid that helps pay for instructional programs for ELLs—that many states and districts say doesn’t match the actual number of English-learners they are serving in their schools..

Because of the wide variation in how ELLs are defined and classified, the federal Education Department uses census data rather than state-reported counts of enrolled ELLs to determine levels of Title III aid. California, for example, gets funding for the roughly 1 million English-learners who are captured by census data collected through the American Community Survey, rather than the 1.4 million actually enrolled in its public schools, said Mr. Linquanti.

Key Issues

To move toward a common definition, Mr. Linquanti and Mr. Cook say, states will have to wrestle with four key issues.

The first is identifying the pool of potential English-learners, which is done by school districts through the use of home-language surveys. Even though such surveys are widely used, the types of questions they ask and the results they yield vary dramatically.

The second is establishing similar criteria for confirming, or ruling out, that a potential English-learner actually needs services and establishing the level of support that a student needs.

The third is defining, in a common way, what it means to be English-proficient.

The fourth is agreeing to consistent criteria in deciding if a student is no longer an ELL.

“We can’t have criteria for reclassification all over the map,” Mr. Linquanti said. “There are places where a kid can be kept as an ELL based on a single grade that has nothing to do with his or her language proficiency.”

Both Mr. Linquanti and Mr. Cook said that teachers and other educators who are close to the students should still be able to weigh in on the readiness of an English-learner to exit from language-acquisition services, but that having clear and common criteria, a checklist of sorts, would lead to more consistency in reclassification.

“It’s figuring out where the sweet spot is,” Mr. Cook said.

Another advantage to making English-learner policy more consistent across states is that it would create a bigger demand for high-quality instructional materials for ELLs, said Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University who co-directs the Understanding Language effort that is developing free, open-source common-core materials for educators who work with English-learners.

“This would also motivate publishers and service providers to take advantage of a critical mass market and develop better and differentiated materials for the diversity of [English-language learners],” said Mr. Hakuta, who also coordinates a CCSSO group on assessment of ELLs and enlisted Mr. Linquanti and Mr. Cook to write recommendations for states.

And, Mr. Hakuta said, as concerns persist over the needs of certain types of English-learners, particularly those long-term ELLs who have been receiving services for six or more years with little progress toward reaching proficiency, consistency will help lead to “better differentiation of instruction for different levels of kids.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as Push Under Way to Standardize ELL Definitions


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