In passing the Every Student Succeeds Act, Congress rolled back the federal government’s overall reach into testing requirements for K-12 education. But there is a significant exception: English learners.
The successor law to the No Child Left Behind Act significantly expands states’ obligations to measure the progress of students who don’t yet communicate fluently or learn effectively in English. The law also compels them to act when schools consistently fail to help those students become proficient.
The new provisions are an acknowledgment that multilingual America must do more to meet the language needs of a student subgroup – comprising 10 percent of school children nationwide and 22 percent, about 1.4 million students, in California – that has trailed in graduation rates, college admission and other key academic indicators.
The Every Student Succeeds Act makes tracking the progress of English learners a top priority in each state’s school accountability system. It requires states to standardize statewide criteria for designating students English learners and for reclassifying them as no longer needing extra language instruction. Once they’re reclassified, the law requires states to monitor former English learners for four years – two years longer than currently done.
California, which adopted new English language development standards in 2012 and a curriculum framework for teaching English learners in 2014, is further along than most states in meeting the accountability requirements of the law, said Robert Linquanti, one of the nation’s foremost experts on English learner policy and systems and the project director for English Learner Evaluation and Accountability Support at the research agency WestEd. Many states view California’s new standards, which describe the language knowledge and skills English learners need to perform at grade level, and its curriculum framework as models, Linquanti said.
“The Every Student Succeeds Act won’t sidetrack California; it should provide a tailwind so that it can continue its approach,” he said.
Big focus on English learners
Under the new federal law, English learners become more than just one of many student subgroups whose academic achievements must be tracked by schools receiving federal Title I dollars for low-income children. Their progress toward English proficiency becomes a priority in a state’s school accountability system. Others include high school graduation rates, and test scores – along with multi-year growth on those scores – of all students and subgroups, including English learners, on the state’s academic standards. In California, that includes Common Core standards for math and English language arts and, soon, the Next Generation Science Standards.
Consistent with its shift of power from Washington to the states, the new law will continue the No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement that states write their own standards for English language development that correspond to a state’s science, math and English language arts standards for all students. States must create their own English language proficiency test, identify schools with the lowest-performing English learners and then oversee plans for school improvement. They must report the progress of long-term English learners, those still not proficient after receiving language support for five years.
California is well positioned for the transition. It is developing a new English language proficiency test, English Language Proficiency Assessments for California, which will be aligned to its new English language development standards. The test is scheduled to be introduced in 2018 as a replacement for the current test, the California English Language Development Test, which is aligned to the previous standards.
As part of their Local Control and Accountability Plans, districts are already required to annually calculate the percentage of English learners who become proficient on the state language test and the rate at which English learners subsequently are designated fluent-English proficient.
The State Board of Education is currently designing a statewide set of performance goals for these and other academic metrics. The Every Student Succeeds Act requires that states include performance on the new proficiency test for English learners as a key metric and, at a minimum, identify and work with the 5 percent of schools with the lowest-scoring English learners.
Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, executive director of Californians Together, a coalition of organizations that advocate for English learners, expressed optimism about the changes. “Having EL students be included as part of the mainstream accountability system makes their progress or lack of progress more visible,” she wrote in an email. “If this new attention causes districts and schools to develop a comprehensive approach to services and programs and informs the district LCAPs, there could be a direct effect on outcomes.”
But, she added, “Just the inclusion of these scores does not create high quality programs and services for English learners.”
Uniform entry and exit criteria
Each state will have to develop and apply uniform criteria and procedures for identifying English learners and for reclassifying them as English-language proficient, ensuring statewide consistency.
That will be a significant change in California. Most states use only test scores on their English language proficiency test for reclassification. California has identified English learners based on how well they do on the language development test but has left it up to districts and students’ teachers to also weigh a mix of factors, including teacher judgment, scores on other standardized academic tests and parent consultations. As a result, the reclassification process has been subjective and inconsistent, with some students reclassified perhaps too soon and others retained too long as English learners, which often limits their access to rigorous courses, Linquanti said.
A report that Linquanti co-authored for the Council of Chief State School Officers concludes that states should use at least two measures for reclassification, including observations of how students use language in classroom settings. However, teachers should be trained in using common evaluation criteria, the report says.
Other changes in federal law include:
- Counting English learners differently when calculating funding. The federal government had calculated the number of English learners based on a Census survey of how parents perceived their child’s English fluency, which has led to an undercount in California. The federal government will be able to partly use states’ own counts, which would raise the total number of English learners in the state and lead to about $20 million more annually in federal funding, Linquanti said.
- Grouping the test scores of students newly classified as English-proficient with current English learners. This was a controversial change. Proponents said monitoring former English learners for four years instead of the current two years will provide important information about how well they perform in middle and high school and about how accurate the exit criteria are. “However, by including former English learners, overall scores for the subgroup will rise and may mask the performance of current English learners,” Delia Pompa, senior fellow for education policy at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., wrote in a commentary for EdSource.
- Requiring states to distinguish between English learners with a learning disability and English learners in general. This will provide a better picture of both groups. Experts say that some English learners are being identified as having a cognitive disability when what they need is more language acquisition help. Other English learners do have a learning disability but aren’t receiving specialized support.