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States May Move Closer to Uniform Way of Identifying ELLs

By Lesli A. Maxwell — September 05, 2013 4 min read
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The widespread adoption of the common-core standards and the imminent rollout of shared content assessments is pushing states to find common ground in yet another dimension of schooling: how best to serve the growing population of English-language learners.

With a just-released set of recommendations from the Council of Chief State School Officers to help guide them, most states are now set to embark on an effort to bring more uniformity to identifying who English-learners are and when those students no longer need language instruction. The goal is to move all states to a more consistent playing field over the next four or five years.

Doing so would upend current practice, which for decades has had states and local school districts using different approaches to identify ELLs and reclassify them as fluent in English. It would also lead, experts say, to much more comparability among states and districts on how well they are serving this growing population of students.

“This is about making sure that kids get the services they need, when they need them,” said Timothy Boals, the executive director of the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment Consortium, or WIDA, a group of 33 states that already share common English-language-proficiency standards and annual assessments.

“This will help everyone understand what services our ELLs need at various points along the continuum,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Education is an important driver of the states’ effort to move toward a more consistent approach.

States belonging to the consortia that are designing shared assessments for the Common Core State Standards—as well as the two groups developing new English-language-proficiency tests—agreed, as a condition of their federal grants money for those endeavors, to work together to create more-uniform definitions of ELLs.

‘Completely Voluntary’

The hope is that even states not taking part in any of the assessment groups will be part of the effort, especially Texas, where more than 800,000 English-learners attend public schools.

“No one is imposing this on states,” said Robert Linquanti, a senior research associate at WestEd, a San Francisco-based research organization, and a co-author of the CCSSO policy recommendations. “It’s completely voluntary for states to do this, but at the same time, most of them signed an agreement saying they would participate in moving toward a common definition.”

Representatives from a number of states, the assessment groups, federal civil rights officials, and advocates for ELLs will meet in Washington this month to begin making decisions, said Scott Norton, the director of standards, assessment, and accountability for the CCSSO, which last year convened a task force to advise states on such issues.

In the guidelines written by Mr. Linquanti and H. Gary Cook, an associate research scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the authors spell out four areas for states to tackle.

The first is identification. Home-language surveys are the principal way for educators to identify potential ELLs, but the surveys, depending on the questions asked, can produce very different results.

For example, just asking a parent to answer whether a language other than English is spoken in the home could yield both false positives and false negatives. A kindergartner may live in a home with a Spanish-speaking grandparent, with whom one parent may communicate in that language. But the same student may only speak in English with both parents and at his or her former preschool.

The second area involves confirming, or ruling out, whether students actually are ELLs. States and districts use different methods now to determine students’ English-proficiency levels and the level of language services.

Mr. Linquanti and Mr. Cook call for making those procedures and tools more standardized and recommend that states agree on a common process for addressing situations in which students are mistakenly placed in, or left out of, language services.

Defining Proficiency

A third issue is defining what it means to be English-proficient. In some states now, students’ scores on the reading and writing portions of their English-language-proficiency assessments receive more weight than listening and speaking. In others, all four domains are considered equally.

Under the guidelines, the first step would be for language-acquisition and -assessment experts to compare what states are currently using as their descriptions of English-language proficiency to find similarities and differences.

Both of the common-core-aligned assessment groups—the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC—will begin field-testing in the spring and will need broader agreement among states on proficiency descriptions to decide on appropriate accommodations for ELL test-takers.

Finally, states must grapple with the high-stakes decisions that educators make on reclassifying students as fluent and ready to exit ELL services. A dozen states only consider students’ results on the annual English-language-proficiency tests, while others include additional factors, such as grade point average or parent input.

The authors said the key recommendation is that states and districts develop criteria that rely on students’ linguistic abilities and not require a minimum level of performance on an academic-content test, which is what several states do now.

A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as New Guide Advises States on Common ELL Definitions

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