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Does the Nation Need One Definition for English-Language Learners?


This week, during a panel that I moderated for the release of Quality Counts 2009, Kris Gutierrez, a professor of social research methodology at the University of California at Los Angeles, said the nation should have a common definition for English-language learners. Ms. Gutierrez, by the way, is a member of the working group for education of President-elect Barack Obama's transition team, though as a panelist she was articulating only her own personal views, not those of the transition team.

She proposed this seemingly simple—but actually not so simple—idea in answer to a question of how the No Child Left Behind Act should be changed to better address the needs of English-language learners.

I say that the idea is "not so simple" because right now, just as states set their own goals for what is considered to be adequate yearly progress for students, they also create their own definitions for what is an ELL and what kind of achievement on state English-language-proficiency tests or regular academic state tests signifies that a student is no longer an ELL. And in many states, school districts have discretion to determine when a student is no longer an ELL.

It's hard for me to picture states agreeing on a common definition or trusting the U.S. Congress to come up with a workable common definition. But at the same time 19 states are already using the same English-language-proficiency standards and test that were produced by the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment, or WIDA, consortium. So that's 19 states that are using some common tools for the education of ELLs, even although those individual states use various cut-off scores to recommend that a student is no longer an ELL.

Readers, I'd like to hear from you what the implications would be for the nation to have a common definition for ELLs. Can you picture it happening, and would it be a benefit to the field?


Finding a common definition for English proficiency for all ELL students in all fifty states would be difficult. While all ELL's are learning the same language, they do not all share the same native tongue. Learning English from a Spanish point of view would be different than from a Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian or Arabic point of view. These are just a few languages that use different writing styles and symbols as well as sentence orders. Comprehension tends to preceed writing ability, and understanding spoken words is different than being able to read a language. Individualized programs are needed to address individual group needs nd proficiency tests cannot be standardized for all ELL's.

Look at how having the federal government in education has hurt education. I'd be afraid about the politics. There is also a problem with parents of the children affected not being included in the process. They usually can't vote and have no voice that really influences politics in education. TESOL certified teachers are few and spotty so even they have limited influence. Maybe it could help but I fear it would not, just as NCLB has not done well with education. Besides, in our Constitution, education is the domain of the states.

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