Federal support of programs for English-language learners depends on a formula based on the number of ELL students in each state and district, but a long-awaited national study suggests officials need a more comprehensive way to identify the students who need help.
The final report, developed by Washington-based National Research Council for the U.S. Department of Education, calls for federal policymakers to to change the funding formula for ELL grants to incorporate state-level counts of students with limited English proficiency in addition to the Census Bureau data now used to identify them.
Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provides grants to states and districts to support programs to help English learners gain proficiency in the language, as well as help immigrant students transition in American schools. Title III, at $750 million in FY 2010, is still a small grant pool compared to Title I, but the program's profile has grown with the skyrocketing increase in ELLs; while the Education Department estimates the school-age population has grown 3 percent in the last decade, ELLs have jumped 60 percent, to nearly 4.5 million students.
Title III allows the Education Department to use either Census or state data to identify the number of ELLs in each state and gauge its share of Title III money. Yet a 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office found the two methods produce dramatically different results; in 2004-05, the GAO found the Census estimate of ELLs for California was almost 50 percent lower than the state estimate, but it was 40 percent higher than the state estimate in New York.
The NRC study authors compared the two methods on a variety of criteria:
"We don't have a gold standard anywhere, to compare them both to, so we just have to qualify that we recognize that each of them have different strengths," said Alan M. Zaslavsky, the NRC study chairman and a professor of healthcare policy (statistics) at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass. "My sense would be its certainly in the spirit of the [ESEA] legislation that you should be able to use the most accurate combination of A and B."
The report recommends the primary Title III grant formula be changed so that 75 percent of a state's share is based on Census estimates of ELLs, while 25 percent is based on the state's own reports of students with limited English proficiency. A second Title III grant, intended to support programs for new immigrant students, would be based solely on Census figures.