Ed. Dept. Releases Guide for States on English-Language Proficiency

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 06, 2012 2 min read
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UPDATE: The newly-released guidebook is still considered a draft until a final version is published in early March. Education Department folks say they don’t expect substantive changes, however.

The U.S. Department of Education today released a guidebook to help states set new proficiency standards and academic achievement targets for English-language learners.

The report, commissioned by the education department and written by ELL experts at the American Institutes of Research, the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research, and WestEd, describes empirical methods state policymakers may use to determine exactly what English proficiency means for students, how long it should take students to reach it, and how to factor in those proficiency levels when measuring progress in the academic content areas.

The guidebook, called “National Evaluation of Title III Implementation Supplemental Report: Exploring Approaches To Setting English-Language Proficiency Performance Criteria and Monitoring English-Learner Progress,” is directed at assessment and accountability officials in state departments of education, as well as senior state education agency officials, those who provide technical assistance and people who advise education governing boards.

The release of the guide comes at a key time for states, many of which are in the process of seeking to escape provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act by applying for flexibility waivers. In those applications, states must address how they will hold schools accountable for the language and academic proficiency of English learners. It also comes at a time when states are beginning to adopt the Common-Core academic standards and must grapple with how to adapt those so that English learners may fully access them.

It is the first of four reports to be released as part of a four-year study undertaken by AIR to evaluate Part A of Title III, the provision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that provides federal grants to states and local school districts to education English-language learners.

Robert Linquanti, a senior research associate at WestEd and one of the guidebook’s authors, said the new publication is meant to “start the discussion” with state policymakers on three key questions:

1. How to determine what the "finish line" is for English-language proficiency; 2. How long should it take students to reach that definition of proficiency once you account for where they started and how long they've been receiving services; and 3. How to account for English-proficiency levels when setting expectations for students' academic progress

To answer the first question, the guidebook outlines three analytical methods policymakers can follow. On the second question, the researchers describe two ways states may use to figure out the time frame for an English learner to reach a certain proficiency standard. And on the third question, the guidebook describes three approaches states may use to account for students’ proficiency levels when setting goals for their academic progress.

All of the approaches rely on using information mined from the longitudinal data systems states have been building to monitor student achievement.

Linquanti and co-author H. Gary Cook, who is the research director for the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment consortium, a group that is developing a new assessment of English proficiency to be aligned with the common core, advise that states use a combination of some or all of the methods they describe. They also stress that this guidebook—summarized here—is not meant to be the final word on how states set proficiency standards and achievement targets for English learners.

“We see this as the beginning of the discussion,” Linquanti said. “We don’t think we have all the answers. What we aimed for here is to lay out some basic groundwork to give folks a strong, empirical base to start from.”

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