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States’ Ability to Evaluate ELL Programs Questioned

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 06, 2010 7 min read
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In its blueprint for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Obama administration proposes requiring states to implement an evaluation system on the effectiveness of programs for English-language learners. But educators, advocates, and researchers who work with those students have differing views about whether states are well set up to meet such a requirement.

The plan released last month also calls for states to standardize the criteria for identification of ELLs and for their readiness to leave special programs. That would be a big change for California, the state with about 40 percent of the nation’s English-learners. It now leaves it up to school districts to decide whether students are proficient enough to stop getting special help to learn the language.

How to tell whether programs for English-language learners work is a thorny issue that is at the center of two federal court cases.

Parties in Horne v. Flores, which was remanded by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer to a federal district court in Tucson, Ariz., plan to make opposing arguments in hearings scheduled to start Sept. 1 on whether Arizona has a system in place that effectively evaluates such programs.

Arizona education officials expect to argue that the state’s program in which English-learners must take four hours of English in separate classes each day is successful, based on data that show an increasing number of students have been reclassified as fluent in English each year since the program was put in place.

Margaret Garcia Dugan, Arizona’s deputy superintendent of public instruction, said in an interview that the program is working because the annual reclassification rate for ELLs jumped from 12 percent in 2007 to 22 percent in 2008, and then to 29 percent in 2009.

Reliance on Reclassification

The state has already standardized its criteria across school districts for when ELLs should leave special programs, as the Obama administration has urged. Students are recategorized as fluent in English and put in mainstream classes when they pass the state’s English-proficiency test.

See Also

For more coverage of English-Language Learners, visit Learning the Language, an Education Week blog.

But Timothy Hogan, a lawyer for the Flores side and the executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, says the state isn’t assessing the program in any “meaningful way.”

The first jump in the reclassification rate occurred before the four-hour program began, according to Mr. Hogan. Also, he said, it was a result of the state’s decision to start giving the English-proficiency test twice to kindergartners—at the start and end of the school year. At the kindergarten level, he said, English-learners are easily reclassified, but that rate isn’t representative of older students.

Mr. Hogan also contends that the English-proficiency test is too easy. “You can pass this test with being proficient orally but not in reading and writing,” he said.

Meanwhile, measurement of the effectiveness of programs for English-learners is also a central issue in a federal court case brought against Texas by the American GI Forum of Texas, a Hispanic veterans’ association, and the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC. A federal appeals court there ruled in United States v. Texas last month that the federal district court in Tyler, Texas, had put too much emphasis on the gap in performance on standardized content tests in English between ELLs and non-ELLs in determining that programs for secondary school English-learners weren’t effective.

The appeals court said it didn’t dispute the fact that the academic-achievement data for ELLs—whom the court, using an older label, calls limited-English-proficient—is “alarming.” But, the ruling noted, “it is difficult for standardized tests administered in English to accurately capture an LEP student’s knowledge of core curriculum.”

The appeals court encouraged the GI Forum and LULAC to add individual school districts as defendants in the case so the district court could better examine the evidence for judging the failure of programs and how to fix them.

Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said the state has put in place some of the elements of an evaluation system that the Obama administration’s plan describes.

Data Demands

The blueprint says states would be required to “implement a system to evaluate the effectiveness of language-instruction educational programs, and to provide information on the achievement of subgroups of English-learners, to drive better decisions by school districts for program improvement, and to support districts in selecting effective programs.”

Ms. Ratcliffe said: “We gather all this information and determine if certain districts appear to be high-risk and if they are implementing the programs effectively. If we feel they aren’t implementing programs as required by law, there are sanctions.”

Roger L. Rice, a lawyer representing the GI Forum and LULAC, said Texas is collecting a lot of data, but state officials don’t examine it in a meaningful way. For example, he said, “we put out proof that there were long-term English-language learners, kids in the schools for four or five years, and more than half of them weren’t gaining proficiency in English [in that time].”

Delia Pompa, the vice president for education for the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group, says the federal government has long had requirements for ELL program evaluations.

Before the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the ESEA, became law eight years ago, she said, districts applying for federal grants for English-language-acquisition programs had to show why their programs should be funded and, after they got the grants, whether the programs had worked. The NCLB law replaced that discretionary-grant program with a formula-grant program that requires districts and states to report the progress English-learners make each year in learning the language and in attaining fluency, which she said is another form of evaluation.

Ms. Pompa, the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs under the Clinton administration, said La Raza supports an evaluation requirement for states.

Timothy Boals, the executive director of the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment consortium, noted that states increasingly have better longitudinal data on the academic progress of English-learners. His nonprofit organization devised an English-proficiency test now used by 21 states and the District of Columbia.

He supports the administration’s proposal to require state evaluation systems. “The policy itself,” he said, “may help drive those mechanisms that make it possible.”

State Leeway

Others say they will support an evaluation requirement only if states can determine the components for that system.

Ms. Dugan of the Arizona education department said she would back such a requirement if it would be sufficient to use reclassification rates tied to statewide criteria to measure ELL programs’ effectiveness. “If we start saying they have to be proficient in all content and academic areas, they will never be out of the program,” she said.

Don Soifer, the executive vice president of the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute, a think tank, said on his organization’s Web site that the requirement is a bad idea because it could mean more federal involvement in ELL programs.

But in an interview, Mr. Soifer said he could go along with such a requirement if it stressed students’ attaining English fluency.

The section on ELLs in the Obama administration’s reauthorization plan doesn’t contain much detail, but Education Department spokeswoman Sandra Abrevaya added some clarification last week.

“Our proposal would ask school districts to evaluate the adequacy and effectiveness of a district’s program for [English-learner] students, and we would recommend that states look at multiple criteria such as EL student growth and attainment in English, student growth and achievement in the content areas, graduation rates, etc.,” her e-mail said. “We would also ask states to monitor that the programs implemented take into account the linguistic, cultural, and academic backgrounds of the EL students enrolled; that the programs use standards-based curricula; that they utilize funds appropriately; etc.”

Soon after the administration released its ESEA plan, researchers who call themselves the Working Group on ELL Policy detailed what they think ELL provisions should look like in the next version.

Their plan overlaps with the administration’s proposal in calling for criteria for standardized identification of ELLs within states.

But the researchers also propose some dramatically different provisions from those in the administration’s plan and the current ESEA.

They recommend that the federal government change the ELL category so such students remain in it for accountability purposes after they leave special English-learner programs.

“It’s to give educators credit for the success they’ve had,” explained Robert Linquanti, a member of the group and a senior research associate at WestEd, a nonprofit research and development agency. “Also, these students have ongoing academic needs, and that can get lost because a lot of people figure, once they are exited from being ELLs, they are just fine.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 2010 edition of Education Week as Ability to Evaluate ELL Programs Questioned

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