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Fla.'s NCLB Waiver Request Tries New Tack With English Learners

Of the 11 states that met last week's early deadline for waivers from the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, Florida is the one with the most English-learners.

That's why I wanted to read its waiver proposal and look for nuggets that shed light on how much English learners would figure directly into the state's strategy for winning a reprieve from NCLB. From what I can discern from the 151-page application (which doesn't include the appendices), English learners don't receive any particularly special attention. They comprise 9 percent of the state's public school enrollment.

Several things jumped out at me, but none more than the new Annual Measurable Objectives, or AMOs, that Florida outlines in its proposal. Specifically, AMO #3. Under AMO #3, Florida would lump students who fall into one of the traditionally low-performing subgroups, such as ELLs, into one group labeled "lowest-performing 25%." Schools would have to demonstrate that half of their students who are among the lowest-performing 25 percent have made learning gains in reading and math.

Florida rationalizes this approach by saying that schools frequently don't have enough students in a given subgroup, such as African-Americans or English learners, for their performance to factor into the school's accountability bottom line. That can lead educators to focus only on those low-performing students who do make a difference on how schools are judged. And that, says the Florida application writers, could lead to students being overlooked. In other words, a school with a small number of ELLs may not bother to develop instructional strategies to help them improve if, in the end, how they perform on a test doesn't impact the school's overall rating.

While it doesn't appear that this approach would do away with the schools setting targets for, and reporting, the performance of the larger individual subgroups, I'm not entirely certain how this AMO will impact the disaggregation of performance data for students. If it means that ELLs usually get swept into a larger category of underperforming students, I think a lot of folks will find fault with it.

Which brings me to another notable feature in Florida's application: Collaboration with outside stakeholders.

The only identified "stakeholder" that Florida appears to have collaborated with on issues related to English learners was the state chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC. I know that LULAC has been active in Florida on requiring professional development for teaching English learners for all teachers, but I don't have a sense of how representative their view is on ELL issues statewide. By comparison, the state consulted with six "stakeholder" groups in special education.

And I have one final observation.

In their discussion of how they will put college- and career-ready standards into practice and tie state tests to them, Florida education officials indicate that they intend to ensure that ELLs will be able to achieve the common standards, but don't spell out concrete steps to make that happen. The application states that Florida "is planning to conduct an analysis of the linguistic demands of the Common Core State Standards" to help the state shape new English-language proficiency standards that correspond. That's almost verbatim what the Education Department says in its FAQs about the responsibilities states and local districts have when it comes to serving English learners under a waiver.

As a first step toward developing such proficiency standards, Florida cites its membership in a 15-state consortium (led by California) to design a new generation of tests to measure English-language proficiency. But that group—formed earlier this year to compete for a federal grant to create the assessments—did not win funding from the U.S. Department of Education, and has not apparently found a surefire way to continue working together to develop new proficiency tests or standards.

There's much more to parse in the Florida proposal (as well as the 10 other states), so please, have at it, and let me know what you think.

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