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States Show Slow Progress With English-Learners

Most states are still struggling to meet federal goals for English-language learners in reaching academic targets in mathematics and reading, though a small number have made progress in recent years, according to an evaluation released this month by the U.S. Department of Education.

In a long-overdue biennial report to Congress on the progress of the federal program that supports services for English-language acquisition, 17 states in the 2006-07 school year reported meeting all three academic goals they set for ELLs, which include progress in learning English, attainment of fluency, and demonstration of proficiency on state content tests in reading and math (which is adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the No Child Left Behind Act's yardstick).

But that number dropped in the 2007-08 school year when just 11 states reported that they met all three targets. None of the states that met all three targets in either year is named in the report, which covers the 2006-07 and 2007-08 school years.

Though modest, those numbers represent some improvement for states when it comes to ensuring that more ELLs are hitting the mark for proficiency in reading and math.

In the two previous evaluations of Title III—the section of the NCLB law that authorizes federal aid to states and local districts for English-language acquisition services—only one state was credited for meeting AYP for ELLs. That unnamed state met the AYP target in math for the 2005-06 school year.

The growth from virtually no states meeting the three targets to 17 of them doing so in 2006-07 "is breathtaking when you consider where we started," said Kathleen Leos, who was the director of the Education Department's office of English-language acquisition during President George W. Bush's administration. "These are states that actually have demonstrated a change in mindset about what it means to provide meaningful instruction to English-learners."

But James Crawford, the president of the Institute for Language and Education Policy and a long-time critic of the No Child Left Behind Act, said the results in states where ELLs are scoring at proficient and advanced levels on content tests "suggest that the tests are too easy or that the kids are mis-classified as ELLs." He points to English-learners results' on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, which have remained relatively flat in recent years.

"NAEP is a much better gauge because it's not a high-stakes test and teachers don't prepare kids to take it," he said. "The obsession with the accountability structure just takes away resources from things like teacher professional development and program design, which is what English-learners really need."

Overall, the report notes that more than 4.6 million students were identified as English-learners in the 2007-08 school year, and that 4.3 million were served in programs that receive Title III funding. The Education Department gave $617 million in state grants under Title III in both 2006-07 and 2007-08.

The evaluation was published recently on the website of the National Clearinghouse of English Language Acquisition. It has been four years since the Education Department issued its last required biennial report on Title III to Congress. A report on the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years is also overdue. A separate evaluation on the progress of Title III conducted by researchers at the American Institutes of Research was released in May.

When it comes to ELLs making progress in learning English and attaining proficiency in the language, states reported wildly varying rates for both school years, underscoring the differences in how states and local school districts define who is an English-language learner and when they reach fluency. States also use different standards and assessments to measure proficiency both in the English language and in reading and math content. Those differences make comparisons between states invalid.

In Delaware in 2006-07, for example, 92 percent of ELLs were reported as making progress in learning English and 99 percent were reported as attaining proficiency. In California, home to the nation's largest number of ELLs, 52 percent were reported as making progress in learning the language in 2006-07, while 31 percent attained proficiency. Louisiana posted the lowest rates of any state, with 2 percent of ELLs making progress in learning English in 2006-07, and 5 percent attaining proficiency.

Results for ELLs hitting targets in math and reading are also highly variable among the states. Those reporting the highest percentage of ELLs reaching proficiency in the two subject areas for both school years include Nebraska, Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia, and Texas. Those with some of the lowest percentages of ELLs meeting academic targets were the District of Columbia, California, Massachusetts, New York, and Arizona.

Under the rules of Title III, each state sets its own goals for measuring progress in learning English, as measured by results on English-language proficiency exams, attainment of fluency in English, and demonstration of proficiency on state exams in reading and math.

The report also shows progress the states have made in tracking the performance of former ELL students who have been reclassified as proficient in English.

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