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A Review of English Learners Under ESSA: The Promise of Equitable Educational Opportunities

  ·  Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro

By Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro PhD and Karen Garibay-Mulattieri

Test scores are not the end-all be-all when it comes to predicting college success. Nor should they be the only data used to evaluate school performance. Studies conducted by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research have shown that attendance and grades in core subject areas are more reliable indicators of high school graduation and success thereafter. Yet, the national rhetoric and federal law remain firmly focused on student growth and subject area mastery as demonstrated by annual testing. This practice is troublesome for subgroups such as English learners and the newcomers who are a part of this group (newcomers are those students who are in their first year of enrollment in a U.S. school). We have to ask ourselves: Why are we holding these students accountable for a U.S. education that they have barely received?

Illinois, like most states, administers subject matter tests in English, which is a language English Learners, by definition, are still acquiring.  The Latino Policy Forum stands with experts in the field who question achievement testing in English when students are not yet fluent, as the results tend to be inaccurate and unreliable.  In an ideal world, exams would not be used for high stakes purposes, such as grade placement, school accountability, or teacher evaluation.  Yet these ideals and research stand in contrast with federal accountability requirements. 

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provided an opportunity for states to move away from certain aspects of school accountability under No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  The NCLB focus was solely on grade-level content mastery in language arts, mathematics and science.  Many schools serving English Learners were deemed as underperforming in the NCLB system and sanctions were put into place.  Under ESSA, academic testing is still a federal mandate which is combined with school quality indicators.  States have the prerogative to decide how much weight to give to assessment data versus other important aspects of a school.  Illinois has decided to weigh test scores as 70 percent of the metrics used to evaluate school performance; which is a very heavy weighting.  English Learners are one of the subgroups in the accountability system. When we think about students who are newcomers, who do not speak English, the situation becomes especially problematic with assessment data.  What researchers are beginning to realize is that the most powerful data for understanding the academic success of these students is to follow the performance of English Learners after they have become English proficient and have transitioned from programs. 

When it comes to federal law, the U.S. Department of Education offered the opportunity for states to follow the progress of former English Learners for at least four years after reclassification.  Illinois originally planned to follow the former English Learners through high school graduation, however this is not the current practice on the Illinois School Report Card.

With regard to newcomers, ESSA offers three options:

OPTION 1: Test students in their first year and include the proficiency score (percentage of students meeting Illinois Standards) for accountability purposes. The second year, and thereafter, both growth and proficiency scores would be included.

OPTION 2: No testing during the first year.  This would mean solely a proficiency score or percentage of students meeting Illinois Standards would be used to evaluate school performance in the second year with no data on student growth. 

OPTION 3: Test the student in the first year to establish baseline data that can be used to calculate growth in the second year.  Data from the first year would not be included in the school accountability indicators.  With this option, students would have both a growth and attainment scores for accountability after their second year in the country.

The first two options have limitations as they offer only one data point in either their first or second year of the student’s schooling. This means that schools would not be credited for the improvement these students show from one year to the next. Echoing the punitive days of NCLB, schools serving a large number of newcomers would be deemed underperforming under these options.

If Illinois is going to use data from state assessments and weigh the data more heavily than school quality, then measuring growth and proficiency of newcomers is critical.  Adding in the data from the former English Learner subgroup is also important and would be a much fairer way to determine school effectiveness.  While newcomers are likely to still test below standards in achievement as they are still acquiring the language, schools can receive much deserved credit for their progress made over the school year and for the progress of students who have acquired the English language.

The Latino Policy Forum, as stated above, is not in favor of testing newcomers. The Forum advocates for accountability systems which help us to understand newcomer and English Learner achievement overtime.  The students should be monitored as newcomers and long after they have been reclassified from the English Learner status with school quality indicators that matter even more than testing.  Indicators such as freshman on track, participation in advanced and dual credit courses, and four-year high school graduation rates paint a much more comprehensive picture of equity and opportunity within a school. 

Illinois should reconsider the ESSA plan now that we have implemented certain parts of the law for several years.  With regard to English Learners, the state should review the data and determine the best most student-centered options available under federal law for newcomers.  In addition, the state needs to center more on the long-term performance of former English Learners.  The school quality indicators mentioned above give a broader view of student performance and equitable opportunities for achieving life-long success.

Posted In: Education

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