Linda Darling-Hammond

CREDIT: LPI

Linda Darling-Hammond

California’s State Board of Education has an opportunity at its meeting this week in Sacramento to leave behind one of the most unfair and problematic features of No Child Left Behind (NCLB): the way it calculates English learners’ progress for purposes of accountability.

In doing so, however, the state will still have some other dilemmas to resolve with respect to how it will focus on, understand, and support the nearly 1.4 million public students classified as English learners.

These decisions, which have given rise to considerable debate, will be critically important in this state with the greatest concentration of English learners in the country (about 23 percent of K-12 public school students) so that it can both credit schools with their successes in moving English learners to proficiency in English and maintain a focus on those long-term English learners who have been left behind. Long-term English learners are students who have been English learners for six or more years, and are not making adequate progress on both learning English and mastering core content.

Kenji Hakuta

CREDIT: STANFORD UNIVERSITY

Kenji Hakuta

What’s the problem?

While NCLB established a noble new aspiration – raising achievement while closing achievement gaps among all groups of students – its goals were undermined by accountability requirements for schools to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) that were generally onerous and, in the case of English learners, literally impossible to meet.

With every subgroup of students, including English learners, expected to show annual progress toward 100 percent proficiency by 2014, a Catch-22 was created since the law required that students in the English-learner group who became proficient in English could no longer be counted in the group for accountability purposes.

Thus, the group as a whole could never make progress as its successful members were removed each year. As one study done in California noted, “the more English learners succeed, the worse the group appears to perform over time.”

The perverse effects of this requirement are shown below in the results for a hypothetical school we will call “Middleville,” which reflects a common set of patterns in many California schools.

The school worked hard to create a strong instructional program for English learners and every single one of the students at Middleville made gains on their English language arts (ELA) tests, with an average score increase of 18 points from 2015 to 2016.

However, two students whom we name Rafael and Yrina, met their district’s reclassification criteria, reached the target score of 350 and were reclassified as fluent English proficient. So they were taken out of the calculations for the English learner group. Removing them from the list made it look like the average score for the remaining English learners had declined by 5 points, even though every single student had actually increased their score.

Furthermore, Jessye, an immigrant newcomer who arrived at the school at the end of the 2015 school year, after other English learners had taken the test, took the test in 2016, and got a very low score of only 90. Her score was included in the English learner group’s score in 2016.  The inclusion of her low score made it look as though the average score of English learners in the school had declined by 23 points since 2015, as the graph below shows.

A school's English learner performance can vary significantly based on which students are counted.

Learning Policy Institute

A school’s English learner performance can vary significantly based on which students are counted. For more detail, see Table 1 below.

Thus, if California were to keep these old rules, a school that should be applauded for its strong gains for English learners would fall in the “red zone” on the display developed by the state to indicate how a school is doing on a number of measures, including standardized test scores. The red zone is the lowest ranking a school can achieve on the color-coded display, denoting that a school is both low-performing and not improving – even though in Middleville every one of the English learners had improved.

Indeed, under NCLB, the more a school succeeded in moving English learners forward, the more likely it was to show no growth in the English-learner group (since it was moving the strongest students out of the group relatively quickly after they were reclassified).

Since NCLB required 100 percent proficiency for each group and ultimately declared schools as failing when any group failed to show annual progress toward this goal, nearly all of the hundreds of schools so identified in California in the first decade of NCLB were so labelled because they served large numbers of English learners.

This nonsensical set of rules has caused negative consequences for children and schools for many years. Because it is impossible to get an honest picture of a school’s progress when students who show progress are not counted, the rules also made it impossible for schools to know whether to continue on a successful instructional path or shift to an entirely new one.

Worse still, they led to unwarranted sanctions for many schools serving concentrations of English learners, including having to “reconstitute” schools which could involve staff dismissals, closing schools in many low-income communities, and causing the flight of many good teachers from schools labelled as failing.

The rules also created disincentives to reclassify students as English-proficient, since doing so would cause them to depart from the English learner group and potentially trigger sanctions. For some students this could mean they would be prevented from taking college preparatory classes as they were retained in segregated classes for English learners that do not earn A-G credit.

Many educators and scholars documented these perverse outcomes over the last decade and, as a result, the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced NCLB, allows states to count English learners in the English learner group for up to 4 years after they are reclassified, so that the overall progress of English learners in schools and districts is more visible in the accountability system.

This is a sensible, if partial, solution, and one that we jointly worked to achieve when ESSA was under discussion. (Many experts advocate that, for purposes of school accountability, all students who enter U.S. schools as an English learner should be counted in the EL group throughout the time they are in school, including those who have gained English proficiency, so that their gains can be fully measured.)

Adopting this approach will give us a more accurate picture of English learner progress and help us know which schools are pursuing instructional strategies that are working and which are not, thus guiding more productive approaches to improvement. It will also help eliminate some of the disincentives to reclassifying English learners as proficient that are keeping some students from moving forward academically. Finally, according to an analysis by the California Department of Education (CDE), this policy will bring more than 1,200 additional schools into the accountability system for English learners by increasing the number of students being tracked in each school. That’s because more schools will reach the minimum number of 30 students needed to report the results of any subgroup of students.

But this change raises questions about how to ensure that the students who continue in the EL group receive the attention and resources they need, especially if they are long-term English learners who are not making strong progress toward English proficiency and content mastery over many years. Many advocates fear that these students’ needs will be masked by the greater success of some of their peers.

Fortunately, in addition to tracking the performance of all students on mathematics and English Language Arts standardized tests, the new accountability system and the LCAP also look at English learners’ progress toward English language proficiency – tracking progress from one level to the next on California’s English language proficiency test.  California calls this its “English Learner Progress Indicator,” and it is a critical addition to the accountability system. Unlike any other indicator, it shines a light squarely on how English learner students are progressing in learning English.

Schools that are not adequately making progress with their English learners’ English language proficiency will fall in the “red zone” on the English Learner Progress Indicator that appears on the dashboard display alongside math and English Language Arts test scores. (State simulations suggest this will add another 700+ schools to the number who would be identified based on the ELA and math tests.) Districts will then need to describe in their Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) how they will target services and funds to these students and the programs that support them. CDE is also currently exploring how data on long term English learners might be incorporated into this measure so that their needs are clearly identified to be addressed by districts.

Finally, the state’s accountability system, reflected in LCAPs, can further leverage ESSA requirements if the Department separately reports  the data it maintains on academic performance for English learners, reclassified fluent English proficient (RFEP) students, and long-term English learners on district and school dashboards.  The instructions of the LCAP template could prompt districts to address these separately reported data in describing their plans for serving each group, so that none are left behind.

A key to long-term success for the state and its English learners will involve both acknowledging the gains that some are making – along with the kinds of instruction that produces these gains, so that others can learn from them – and identifying those who are not making progress so that their needs can be explicitly addressed.

Table 1

Academic Proficiency Gains in ELA for English Learners at Middleville School
2015-2016
Student 2015

 

2016
(all students, including Rafael and Yrina)
2016
(w/o Rafael and Yrina, who were reclassified)
2016
(ELs w/newcomer Jessye)
Rafael 340 370
Yrina 330 360
Jose 320 330 330 330
Maria 300 320 320 320
Ismael 280 290 290 290
Rebecca 260 270 270 270
Anwar 250 270 270 270
Hanna 200 220 220 220
Sonya 150 160 160 160
Roberto 140 160 160 160
Jessye 90
Total 2570 2750 2020 2110
Average score 257 275 252 234
Average change 18 -5 23
Credit: Learning Policy Institute

•••

Linda Darling-Hammond is Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University and President of the Learning Policy InstituteKenji Hakuta is Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University and Faculty Director of Understanding Language/Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity.

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  1. Karen Cadiero-Kaplan 8 months ago8 months ago

    This article articulates clearly the need to use the combined EL and RFEP data to support accountability and technical assistance to districts. Below is a piece several of us from California wrote that is more specific to the need to also report RFEP and EL data as specific sub-groups. Title: Fostering Equity and Meaningful Accountability for California’s English Learners (ELs): Utilizing the EL Academic Indicator as a Mechanism to Drive Continuous Improvement and Resource … Read More

    This article articulates clearly the need to use the combined EL and RFEP data to support accountability and technical assistance to districts. Below is a piece several of us from California wrote that is more specific to the need to also report RFEP and EL data as specific sub-groups.

    Title: Fostering Equity and Meaningful Accountability for California’s English Learners (ELs): Utilizing the EL Academic Indicator as a Mechanism to Drive Continuous Improvement and Resource Allocation
    Authors: Karen Cadiero-Kaplan, Ph.D., Magaly Lavadenz, Ph.D. and, Laurie Olsen, Ph.D.

    After several years of multi-layered planning, stakeholder engagement and design, California has embarked on a historic and bold effort to implement the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF)– an education finance reform
    intended to foster equity alongside local flexibility and democratic engagement. The LCFF provides each district with a base grant determined by the size and grade levels of the student population, as well as
    supplemental and concentration grants based on the number of English language learners, low-income students, and foster youth. Districts must engage parents, teachers, students and community members in developing the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), a document detailing the district’s goals and strategies for using LCFF funds that includes engaging all levels of the system in a commitment to equity and to continuous improvement.

    Linking processes of local planning and resource allocation through the LCAP to the systems of technical assistance and support within a single accountability system is complex. As a state with large numbers of English Learners (ELs), with noted historically persistent underachievement and inadequate responses to the needs of those students, it has been noteworthy and commendable that the work to create the new accountability system has largely embraced a commitment to equity in creating a system that targets the specific needs of English Learners. While significant progress has been made, and many aspects of the new system appear appropriate for the task of accountability for English Learner access and achievement, the decision the State Board of Education still has to make about the English Learner Academic Indicator is at the heart of whether this new system will adequately and equitably focus attention and trigger needed responses to meet the needs of this diverse subgroup.

    There is a dual purpose for the Academic Indicator – for federal and state accountability and decisions to target technical assistance and intervention, and the other for districts to determine goals, set growth targets, and focus program and services and allocation of funds to the students who are in the classrooms now and in need. The definition of the English Learner subgroup used for the Academic Indicator, and the mechanisms of populating the LCAP with English Learner data to guide districts in planning, allocating resources and responding to the needs of English Learners must respond to both of these needs. Thus far, the state’s LCAP guidance and the initiative of LEAs have not been sufficient to result in adequate attention to the needs of English Learners.

    1 A: revision of the LCAP template this year seeks to increase equity by identifying performance gaps and needs directly linked to subgroups that fall within the Orange or Red bands of achievement (see LCAP template, page
    2). At issue for the State Board now is whether the English Learner subgroup definition will illuminate achievement needs with a clear and meaningful English Learner definition or mask those needs by combining English Learners in an average along with RFEPs. As multiple simulations have demonstrated, the combination of EL + RFEP results in the vast majority of districts in the English Learner Academic Indicator falling within the Yellow, Green or Blue bands would not require districts to plan a response. Without clear data alerting districts to English Learner needs, without clear guidance requiring that LEAs plan a response to those needs, the accountability system threatens to miss the mark –with the potential of creating yet another school reform era leaving English Learners (and possibly recently reclassified English Learners) behind.

    The English Learner Composite Indicator monitors progress towards English Proficiency. It is well constructed, and meaningful in addressing the sole issue of English language proficiency. English Learners are a class of students for whom the lack of English proficiency creates a barrier to academic access, participation and achievement. The responsibility of our schools is to ensure that while English Learners are acquiring English they do not accrue academic gaps (in all the academic content they need to master – social studies, science, math, etc.) that are irreparable (Lau v. Nichols [1974], U.S. 563; Castañeda v. Pickard [1981], 648 F.2d 989 (5th Cir., 1981), and that we get students to the levels of English proficiency needed for meaningful access and participation. Of key importance is the fact that they are to learn English AND master academic content. One of the significant problems for Long Term English Learners is that they have accrued major academic gaps over the years. The English Learner Composite Indicator only answers half of the challenge facing English Learners – whether they are moving towards English proficiency and whether they eventually attain that proficiency. The Composite EL English proficiency indicator does not speak to the challenge of academic gaps and mastery; therefore a strong English Learner Academic Indicator is needed for that purpose. Combining English Learners with RFEPs in such an Academic Indicator will mask English Learners’ academic performance.

    Federal accountability provisions allow for a combined EL/RFEP indicator for up to four years of RFEP inclusion. For an overall picture of how a system is doing over time longitudinally with English Learners, this combined indicator makes sense and provides “credit” for eventually getting students to reclassification. However, California’s new accountability system is being designed for more than “big picture” accountability. It is also meant as a vehicle to drive and support continuous improvement, engaging LEAs in attending to the needs of English Learners who are in their classrooms NOW. For example, it is imperative that the system be able to examine the specific growth of a cohort of actual English Learners, and to guide LEAs to generate plans in response to those students and their needs. Additionally, by not having data disaggregated for RFEPs, the state will do a disservice to districts and will discount their success in reclassifying students. And, we cannot afford to mask the very real access and achievement issues facing many English Learners by purging their struggles in an average by combining them with RFEPs for state accountability purposes.

    The solution is two separate indicators. Our state is not locked into an either-or choice between an English Learner-only indicator and a combined English Learner/RFEP indicator. It serves the complex needs of this
    population better, and is more in line with California’s groundbreaking effort to create a flexible and responsive
    accountability system for multiple levels of accountability, equity and continuous improvement by eschewing a forced choice and adopting instead, two separate indicators. Already, in the currently designed California
    Accountability System, the specific definition of the English Learner subgroup changes depending on context in
    order to address the specific meaning of particular measures and indicators. This would follow suit.
    Conclusion and Recommendations We urge the State Board of Education to uphold the promise of LCFF for English Learners by “shining the light” on equity and adopting the following approach to the English Learner Academic Indicator (see Figure 1 below for illustration)
    1). Adopt separate ELs and RFEPs Indicators – To be reported separately and prepopulated on the LCAP with the current directions to districts to identify gaps and areas needing to be addressed in all the LCAP components
    and/or as Greatest Progress; and,
    2) Revise the LCAP Template- The State Board of Education should create an additional box on the LCAP to denote the performance level for federal and state technical assistance and support purposes (accountability) or adopt a policy within the language of State Board Item #2 Addendum to Attachment 1 to describe how the data on ELs plus RFEPs will be used to calculate which districts and/or schools would receive the technical assistance and support with all the accompanying charts and graphs showing the determination of the performance level triggering accountability and continuous improvement efforts.

    Replies

    • Leslie 3 months ago3 months ago

      Hello Karen,

      I was found the article, ‘Fostering Equity and Meaningful Accountability for California’s English Learners (ELs): Utilizing the EL Academic Indicator as a Mechanism to Drive Continuous Improvement and Resource Allocation’, you posted in the comment section extremely helpful, but I can’t seem to find it online to reference. Would you be able to provide the publisher and a link to the article itself?

      Thank you!

      Best,
      Leslie

  2. Kim 8 months ago8 months ago

    Quick correction- I believe under both AYP and API rules, English Learners who had reclassified (and therefore were no longer English Learners), were included in the English Learner subgroup until they had achieved proficiency on the ELA CST three (3) times. Which could perhaps have been more than 3 years. I'm assuming that NCLB allowed this since it was the practice here in CA for many years. So, this change for ESSA … Read More

    Quick correction- I believe under both AYP and API rules, English Learners who had reclassified (and therefore were no longer English Learners), were included in the English Learner subgroup until they had achieved proficiency on the ELA CST three (3) times. Which could perhaps have been more than 3 years. I’m assuming that NCLB allowed this since it was the practice here in CA for many years. So, this change for ESSA doesn’t seem to be that significant.

  3. Laura Kohn 8 months ago8 months ago

    Logic, child interests and equity are prevailing in CA ed policy. Thank you to the authors for elevating and illustrating the prior perversities. Between these policy changes and the new flexibility afforded by the passage of Prop 58, CA is entering a new era of education for our English learners.

  4. Chris Moggia 8 months ago8 months ago

    And this is likely not the only example of how a reasonable need (to track the progress of English Learners over time) devolves into a compliance reporting requirement. When you add up the compliance requirements that virtually no one understands schools are required to complete, you can see that for small schools and districts more time is invested in satisfying compliance requirements than in finding better ways to serve the EL students. California … Read More

    And this is likely not the only example of how a reasonable need (to track the progress of English Learners over time) devolves into a compliance reporting requirement. When you add up the compliance requirements that virtually no one understands schools are required to complete, you can see that for small schools and districts more time is invested in satisfying compliance requirements than in finding better ways to serve the EL students. California is adding additional requirements to EL assessment, including moving to the ELPAC for some of the testing requirements. As the complexity of the compliance requirements increases, the time left over for actually teaching & administrating drops some.