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English-Language Learners

Nuanced Accountability Would Help English Learners. New Research Shows How

By Ileana Najarro — February 08, 2024 5 min read
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Federal accountability measures under the Every Student Succeeds Act include the outcomes of English learners in evaluating schools for improvement. That’s both in terms of the students’ English-language proficiency progress and their test scores in math and English/language arts.

However these accountability measures don’t factor in the quality of services English learners receive. As a result, states and districts miss out on useful context, researchers say. For instance, if English learners at a given school are showing low scores on math and ELA assessments, is that a reflection of the quality of academic instruction at the school, or does it reveal something about the English-language-acquisition support students receive?

A new report from the Migration Policy Institute, with researchers from California State University Northridge and the University of California San Diego, offers suggestions for how states can approach federal accountability data in a more nuanced way to ensure English learners are accessing high-quality academic and linguistic instruction.

Examples of a more nuanced analysis would include looking at schools’ resources, how many specialized teachers are on staff, and whether there is a bilingual program.

“That kind of information is really what I think is most useful to states who are providing guidance to districts, to districts who are trying to learn what’s most effective, and to families and parents and community members as they’re trying to select programs for kids,” said Megan Hopkins, an associate professor in the department of education studies at UC San Diego and a co-author of the report.

Studies recommend changes to accountability data analysis and indicators

The new report consists of findings from both a quantitative and qualitative study completed by 2023.

In the quantitative study, researchers used state-level ELA, math, and English-language-proficiency data from Hawaii and Ohio to look at potential changes to the statistical models states use in their accountability systems. (These states were already being studied for a separate federal grant study.)

Past research has found a connection between students’ English-language proficiency and academic outcomes. Researchers in this quantitative study suggest that states revise their statistical models to something in which academic growth-expectations of English learners consider their English-language proficiency. This would help policymakers better evaluate the quality of academic and linguistic instruction in schools.

In the qualitative study, researchers conducted focus groups and interviews across 18 states with state and local education agency staff, members of community advocacy organizations, and parents of English learners to get a sense of what nonacademic indicators should be included in accountability measures.

Attendance data are a more common nonacademic indicator that states use for accountability, but they don’t say much about what is going on inside schools, said Julie Sugarman, the associate director for K-12 education research at the Migration Policy Institute.

Hopkins and Sugarman, who together led the qualitative study, found strong consensus among various stakeholders in terms of what indicators they believe are most important when trying to assess the quality of English learners’ education:

  • Program models, as in are schools taking a bilingual or English-only approach to instruction,
  • Access to qualified teachers,
  • Student participation in educational opportunities, such as gifted and talented programs or a seal of biliteracy,
  • And family engagement, such as some kind of survey to measure how well schools and families communicate with each other.

The researchers also heard from families and community members that they are not getting information on these indicators now, even if some schools already have the data on hand. It means districts have an opportunity to better present data and make that information accessible to more stakeholders, Sugarman said.

Hopkins added that stakeholders participating in the qualitative study were less interested in using nonacademic indicators as another tool to identify schools in need of remediation under accountability.

Stakeholders want these indicators reported and assessed at the state level to help states guide districts and offer resources that will ensure high-quality services for English learners.

How changes to accountability measures can happen

The idea of modified or nuanced accountability systems isn’t necessarily new.

Kerstin Carlson Le Floch, a managing researcher at the American Institutes for Research, who specializes in state accountability policies and was not involved in the new study, points to some states that started parallel accountability systems for alternative schools. In these cases, states continue to hold alternative schools accountable under ESSA but offer other measures to help the public be more aware of additional indicators that describe the quality of education at these schools.

“Similarly, states could say, ‘We’re going to go ahead and develop alternatives, or a tailored accountability system structured around English learners that can include more nuanced measures,” Le Floch said.

Some of the indicators proposed in the new report involve data that schools already collect, Le Floch added, such as teacher qualifications, though currently states review that data more under the goal of monitoring, not accountability.

While Le Floch acknowledges that changing statistical models and incorporating new indicators for accountability might be a heavy lift for some states, she hopes it’s something they can consider worthwhile to at least look into.

She also hopes that moving forward, any reauthorization of federal accountability measures would return to holding districts, in addition to individual schools, accountable for the outcomes of English learners. That was the model used under the No Child Left Behind Act. Her rationale is that in cases where schools have relatively small numbers of English learners, the individual schools might not have the capacity to address those students’ needs nor be held accountable, but a districtwide systemic response, and aggregated district data, could help.

Hopkins also hopes that with the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English language acquisition now in control of federal dollars for supporting English learners, it could help with a technical-assistance center through which staff can work with districts to develop data infrastructures and systems that will enable them to collect new indicator data in a way that is manageable and accurate.

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