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Defining an English-Language Learner: Can States Agree?

Who is an English-language learner?

Across 50 states and tens of thousands of school districts, answers to that fundamental question can be quite different.

But with the Common Core State Standards widely adopted, and common assessments under development to test those new standards, states are reaching a point where perhaps they can start to wrestle with the task of reaching consensus around shared definitions of what it means to be an ELL, and when those students no longer need language instruction. The U.S. Department of Education is certainly pushing them to do so.

I have a new story on edweek.org today detailing some developments around this very complex undertaking. Defining ELLs in a common way and establishing some consistency across states about when such students have reached proficiency in the language will take very careful, thoughtful, and deliberate discussion. Two leading ELL researchers, Robert Linquanti, of WestEd, and H. Gary Cook, of the University of Wisconsin, have already written a policy brief and are finishing up a more detailed set of recommendations for how states can move ahead.

More consistency among the states on policies around ELLs is also an important component to the work that test designers working on the common assessments must tackle to decide what types of testing accommodations ELLs should get. This is another thorny task because of the differences among states on the current supports that are allowed for English-learners taking standardized tests.

So what could be some of the practical and political challenges for states as they delve into the nitty gritty of trying to agree on ELL policies?

Let's consider Florida. This state, with some 250,000 ELLs in its public schools, must abide by a two-decade-old consent decree that governs everything from how ELLs are identified and tested to what kind of education and training teachers who work with such students must have. The consent decree is the broad, court-enforced agreement between the state board of education and several civil rights groups that sued the state over what they believed were inadequate educational opportunities and services for English-learners. Florida is a member of the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, one of two state groups developing common assessments. It's also part of ELPA 21, a separate group of states working to develop new English-language proficiency standards and tests that correspond with the common standards.

The consent decree is the "law that drives everything that we do in Florida with respect to English-learners," including how students are identified and when they are determined to be proficient, said Chane Eplin, who is the director of Florida's bureau of student achievement through language acquisition. "Anything that would be agreed upon by a group of states or a consortium that Florida is part of would have to align with the consent decree."

Follow me on Twitter for more news on English-language learners @l_maxwell.

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