Study: Most ELLs Are in Districts That Fall Short on Federal Goals

By Lesli A. Maxwell — May 22, 2012 5 min read
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Most English-language learners were enrolled in school districts that failed to reach all their accountability goals for such students in the 2008-09 school year, according to a national evaluation of the federal program that supports services for English-language acquisition.

While more than half the districts that receive federal money to support programs for ELLs reported meeting all their academic goals that year, those districts served only 39 percent of the total ELL population. Only 10 states achieved all their accountability goals for English-learners under the No Child Left Behind Act that year.

“It’s the most comprehensive report we’ve seen, and it gives us a very good snapshot in time of both how far states and districts have come to develop and implement the requirements of Title III,” said Kathleen Leos, who was the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English-language acquisition during President George W. Bush’s administration. “But it also tells us how much further they need to go to change the actual achievement results for English-language learners.”

More Complete Picture

Assessing Proficiency

An evaluation by the American Institutes for Research finds that states varied widely during the 2008-09 school year in their policies regarding the choice of assessments used to determine when English-language learners have achieved proficiency in the language.

Likewise, only 19 states had established consistent criteria for school districts to follow in making those determinations the following school year.

The study is the most comprehensive to date to measure states’ progress in meeting the requirements of Title III, the federal program that supports services for English-language acquisition.

SOURCE: American Institutes for Research


The findings are part of a long-awaited evaluation of Title III, the section of the NCLB law that authorizes federal aid to states and local districts for English-language-acquisition programs. The data provide the most complete picture so far of the overall academic progress of the nation’s 5.5 million English-language learners, the fastest-growing subgroup of students in American public schools.

Researchers at the Washington-based American Institutes for Research conducted the Title III study, which the Education Department released May 11. Two other reports on Title III’s progress—those that are required to be given to Congress every other year—may be released in the coming weeks, according to an Education Department spokeswoman.

The report says states and districts have made big strides in developing and implementing systems with defined standards for English-learners and assessments for measuring their educational progress.

The evaluation of the progress of the $732 million-a-year Title III program found that “states and districts are largely complying with the major provisions of the law.” Nearly all states reported that they have aligned English-language-proficiency standards with state academiccontent standards in at least one core subject, and that they have also linked state English-proficiency tests with their proficiency standards.

But the researchers also noted large variations in how states and districts define which students are English-language learners and when they have reached the point of proficiency.

In all but eight states in the 2009-10 school year, districts have discretion in how to identify ELLs. In the same vein, only 19 states that year had established consistent criteria for districts to follow to determine when students no longer need English-language-acquisition services.

Still, one ELL expert said, the study found that states and districts have made significant progress in developing and putting into practice more-consistent systems for English-learners.

“If you go back just 10 or 15 years, most states had no English-language-proficiency standards and offered a long menu of different types of English-proficiency assessments that were completely noncomparable,” said Robert Linquanti, a senior research associate with WestEd, an education research-and-development organization in San Francisco.

“The other reality is that you had districts who did not assess these kids annually or even look at how they were doing for years,” he said, “and there was no real focus on the relationship between the development of English-language proficiency and their [students’] progress on academic subject matter.”

Still in ‘R&D’

Raul González, the director of legislative affairs for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group based in Washington, said the report shows that states and districts have focused attention on English-learners in a way that is creating a “demand for better products and services for these children.”

But he described states and districts as still largely in an “R&D” stage of figuring out the best materials and instructional strategies to use. “States and districts realize they need better programming, but they are still struggling to find it,” he said.

Half the school districts reported that they lacked good information on research-based curricula and instruction for English-learners.

The 40 states that fell short of making all three goals in the 2008-09 school year were not required to report on which ones they failed to meet. The 10 states that did meet all accountability goals in all three areas for ells—known as “annual measurable achievement objectives,” or AMAOs—were Alabama, Delaware, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Under the rules of Title III, each state sets its own AMAOs, which are goals for progress in learning English as measured by results on English-language-proficiency exams, attainment of fluency in English, and demonstration of ELLs’ proficiency on state content tests in reading and mathematics.

That’s a slight setback from the last update on Title III. In a series of research briefs on Title III released by the Education Department in May 2010, analysts said that 11 states met their accountability goals for English-learners in the 2007-08 school year.

At the district level, 80 percent of Title III districts reported in the new evaluation that they had met their first two goals for ELL students: making progress in learning English and attaining English proficiency. Sixty-four percent of them reported that they had also reached their third goal by making adequate yearly progress for the English-learner subgroup on state reading and math assessments, as well as other indicators such as attendance and graduation rates, according to the study.

Spotlight on ELL Assessment and Teaching

But one-third of Title III districts—which collectively served about half the ELLs receiving Title III support nationwide—reported in 2008-09 that they had missed one or more of their goals for English-learners for two or four consecutive years, which subjected them to such accountability actions as developing improvement plans and notifying parents of ELLs of their failure to meet all goals for such students.

The AIR research team interviewed Title III and assessment directors in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, conducted a nationally representative survey of more than 1,500 districts receiving Title III aid, and used data collected in case studies of 12 Title III districts in five states.

The study also found notable differences in Title III per-pupil funding levels among the states, even though the money is provided under a formula.

And it notes that in the 2009-10 school year, 74 percent of Title III districts reported that all their teachers serving English-learners were “fully certified” to do so. But nearly the same share said that the “lack of expertise among mainstream teachers” to address English-learners’ needs was a “moderate or major challenge.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2012 edition of Education Week as Districts Serving Most ELLs Fall Short on Federal Goals


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