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Standards Organizers Leave English Proficiency to States

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 07, 2010 6 min read
Kenji Hakuta, a member of the common-standards validation committee, says the final version of the standards will help teachers stress academic-language development with English-learners. The new document addresses some, though not all, of the concerns of advocates for ELLs.
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The writing teams for common academic standards sought the advice of researchers on English-language learners, but the organizations that coordinated the venture don’t plan to produce a set of English-language-proficiency standards to go with the common standards, released last week.

Instead, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association intend to leave that up to the states.

“As far as developing [the English-proficiency standards] ourselves, I don’t see that happening,” said Keith Gayler, the director of standards for the ccsso. At the same time, he added, the organization might help some states work together to craft English-proficiency standards.

Meanwhile, the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment, or WIDA, consortium, whose English-language-proficiency standards have been adopted by 23 states and the District of Columbia, is already revising them to align with the common standards.

“We do feel a need to look at [our] standards and make sure we are in sync with what is happening nationally with the common core,” said Timothy Boals, the executive director of WIDA. He said the consortium has formed a national panel of experts to redo the existing proficiency standards.

For the first time under the No Child Left Behind Act, states were required to devise English-language-proficiency standards, which spell out what students who are new to English should know and be able to do in their journey toward acquiring the language. States also had to produce tests aligned with those standards that assess ELLs each year in reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

Costly Endeavor

Citing cost-effectiveness, many states eventually joined the WIDA consortium.

In contrast, states with large numbers of ELLs, such as California, Texas, and New York, tend to have crafted their own English-proficiency standards and tests.

Because WIDA charges for the test on a per-pupil basis, joining the consortium isn’t a bargain for states with large numbers of English-learners, said Pedro J. Ruiz, the president of the National Council of State Title III Directors, which represents administrators of federal funds for English-language-acquisition programs. He’s also the Title III director for New York state.

Both Mr. Boals and Mr. Ruiz say the common standards lack evidence that the needs of ELLs have been adequately taken into consideration.

Initially critical, Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University expert on English-language learners, says the final version of the common standards does a better job addressing Englishlanguage learners. The standards now include a statement saying that for students still acquiring English, “it is possible to meet the standards in reading, writing, speaking, and listening without displaying native-like control of conventions and vocabulary.”

“It would be nice to see them do more,” said Mr. Boals. The writers could have given examples, he said, of the expectations for English-learners at the beginning or intermediate levels of English proficiency. “The continuum from beginner to advanced is a lengthy process. How are we helping teachers see what is reasonable?” he said.

Mr. Ruiz said, too, that while the common-standards document includes an introduction that explains how the standards apply to English-learners, the standards themselves don’t spell out how students at different levels of English proficiency can meet them.

Sue Pimentel, one of the lead writers of the English/language arts standards, said her team didn’t have the time to go the route of spelling out how the standards would work for students of specific English-proficiency levels within the actual standards. Also, she said, the team felt state offcials had the expertise to do that, and it was best to defer to them.

Ms. Pimentel said her team incorporated much of the advice of ELL researchers into the English/language arts standards, which she believes are suitable for English-learners along with other students.

Diane August, a senior research scientist at the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics, was one of those advisers. She said the writers of the English/language arts standards were responsive to the ELL researchers’ concerns and the final document addresses the needs of English-learners more fully than had a March draft. She had felt that the earlier draft had included some aspects of English/language arts in the introduction that were relevant to ELLs but had not incorporated those aspects into the standards themselves.

But Ms. August said the final document fixed that problem. The final standards include an emphasis on “communication and communicative competence” and monitoring one’s own language use for communication and comprehension, which are important skills for ELLs, she wrote in an e-mail.

Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University who specializes in ELLs and was a member of the validation committee for the common standards, was concerned that the March draft had said that students should “demonstrate a command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage.” Some second-language learners may not be at the right stage in their language development to acquire some conventions, such as the use of verbs with an “ed” ending to mark the past tense, he said.

Mr. Hakuta was pleased that the final standards include a statement saying that for students still acquiing English, “it is possible to meet the standards in reading, writing, speaking, and listening without displaying native-like control of conventions and vocabulary.”

Mr. Hakuta said the English/language arts standards overall are high quality. He likes that they specify language requirements in social studies and science. “It helps to define what we’ve been calling academic language,” he said.

No Pedagogy

The math team included most of the suggestions from ELL experts in the introduction, said Phil Daro, a mathematics educator at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the lead writers. Most of the advice related to pedagogy, he said, and the writing team had been told not to include instructional methodology in the actual standards.

But Mr. Daro said the experts did help the writing team clarify better how the math standards would incorporate nonlinguistic representations, such as graphs, tables, and diagrams, which are particularly helpful for ELLs. He said the team strengthened the use of visuals between the March draft and the final document.

One of the math ELL advisers, Judit Moschkovich, a professor of mathematics education at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said the writing team made several important points about English-learners in the introduction.

For example, she said, the introduction combats the myth that “ELLs can’t be involved in mathematical discussions in the classroom until after they learn English.” Researchers have collected lots of examples that show they can participate in math discussions even with limited English, according to Ms. Moschkovich.

Also, she said, the introduction stresses that learning to communicate about math is not only a matter of learning the vocabulary of the subject. “What we want children to be doing is making conjectures, arguing, proving, using representations, and imagining.” She said ELLs can use everyday language to do that.

Besides looking ahead to how states may revise their English-language-proficiency standards as a bridge to the common standards, researchers are also keeping an eye on how the needs of ELLs will be considered in the creation of new assessments aligned with the common standards.

Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, released a policy brief last month aimed at states that are members of consortia applying for grants from the $350 million federal Race to the Top Fund to devise such assessments. The application deadline is June 23.

Assessment Issues

The researchers recommended that states give test-makers explicit instructions on how to avoid unnecessary linguistic complexity when designing the assessments.

“One of the real strengths of Race to the Top is going to be to incorporate more complex problem-solving into these new assessments, said Joan L. Herman, the director of UCLA’s National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, which released the brief. “That’s going to be a really tricky issue to make sure that as we move forward, we don’t leave out ELLs.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week as Standards Organizers Leave English Proficiency to States

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