The ‘Revolving Door’ Problem in English-Learner Accountability

By Lesli A. Maxwell — November 17, 2011 1 min read
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I’ve been covering the English-learner beat for one month now, barely enough time to decipher the menu of alphabet soup and acronyms associated with this complex and specialized field.

But in every conversation I’ve had so far with policymakers, scholars, and practitioners, one issue ALWAYS comes up: the so-called revolving door of the English-learner subgroup. Because new English-learners are always entering and students who’ve been reclassified as proficient are always leaving, the ELL subgroup is in a constant state of fluctuation and under NCLB, districts only continue to report on the achievement of ELLs for two years after they’ve been reclassified as proficient. That cuts two ways: For schools that have done right by ELLs, they don’t get credit for the students’ longer-term success, and for schools that haven’t done right by ELLs, they aren’t held accountable beyond that period.

Earlier this week, as I was reading a summary of the series of “national conversations” held earlier this year in six major hubs of English-language learners, there it was again, listed as the #1 concern/complaint/issue under the broad category of accountability.

And, finally, in an informal conversation this week with Rosalinda Barrera, the director of the Office of English Language Acquisition in the U.S. Department of Education, and her deputy director, Joanne Urrutia, the issue came up as one of a range of challenges vexing the field.

We’ve established that this is a hot topic in the world of ELLs, and that most folks seem to believe there should be greater disaggregation and reporting of ELL achievement.

So what’s the hold up? Sticking point? Barrier? Do people worry that by keeping former ELs in the same subgroup as newly entering ELs, that those on the lower end of achievement will be shortchanged? Is it too difficult to parse the data to show the nuances within the English-learner category?

A group of prominent ELL scholars urged members of Congress to address this issue in the reauthorization of ESEA and even explained how to go about it. No traction so far. The reauthorization bill pending currently in the Senate doesn’t do it.

So where will the momentum for this change come from? Who doesn’t want this to change? Discuss and enlighten me, please.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.