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We've Got More ELL Data, But What Does it Mean?

The Center on Education Policy has made a valiant attempt to interpret data on the academic achievement of English-language learners in a report released today, which I wrote about for EdWeek. The key finding is that test scores in math and reading for English-language learners increased in many states from the 2005-06 through the 2007-08 school years. But the center presents the findings with a lot of caveats, noting that ELL data may not be very reliable, given that it is hard to design tests that accurately reflect what they know and can do. Also, the center notes in its report that the number of ELL test-takers has changed rapidly, which complicates efforts to track achievement trends.

I quote Kenji Hakuta, an expert on ELLs at Stanford University, in my story as saying that the Center on Education Policy's study isn't conclusive on whether ELL achievement is improving. "One would need to benchmark the state assessments against trusted common benchmarks such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress to verify if the gains are indeed real," he said in an e-mail.

The Obama administration's blueprint for reauthorization for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, by the way, calls for a new requirement that states put in place a system to evaluate programs for ELLs. I gathered feedback from educators and experts on that idea for an article just published at EdWeek as well. Some people are very supportive of such a requirement, saying that states now have the capacity to follow ELLs over time and gather meaningful data on them. Others are opposed to such a requirement if it provides a prescription for how states should set up their evaluation systems.

Others note that while states may be gathering a lot of data on ELLs right now, they aren't examining it in a meaningful way.

The Obama Administration's blueprint for the ESEA also calls for a requirement that every state standardize criteria within their states for identifying ELLs, placing them in programs, and deciding when they are ready to leave the special programs.

Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, said in an e-mail that 33 states now have statewide identification criteria for ELLs, 34 states have statewide placement criteria, and 30 states have statewide exit criteria.

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