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ELL Accountability Could Widen Under Harkin NCLB Bill

Democratic and Republican versions of bills to renew the No Child Left Behind Act have rolled out this week, signaling again, as Education Week's congressional analyst extraordinaire Alyson Klein explains, that there's likely zero chance any actual reauthorizing of the federal education law will happen in the current Congress.

Nonetheless, I still wanted to comb through to see how the proposals envision instruction, assessment, and accountability for the 10 percent of public school students who are English-language learners.

The Democratic version of the bill, unveiled by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate education committee, would change the landscape quite a bit.

For starters, Title I schools serving English-learners—even those that haven't been the recipients of Title III dollars (the federal aid for districts that is reserved for programs that serve ELLs)—would be held accountable for how well ELLs are progressing toward reaching English-language proficiency. This could potentially put a whole lot more schools on the hook for how well they are educating ELLs.

Harkin's measure also says that states must adopt English-language development standards that articulate no fewer than four levels of proficiency. States already are required to have proficiency standards, and many are already in the process of updating them to be in line with the Common Core State Standards. Two different groups of states have joined forces to do this work, along with designing new English-language proficiency assessments. It also calls for states to use "standardized" and "evidence-based" entrance and exit procedures for determining which students are English-learners and deciding criteria for when they are proficient and no longer need services. Again, this move toward a more uniform way of identifying ELLs and when they reach proficiency is already starting to occur as a result of common standards and assessments.

Content assessments, as called for in the Harkin bill, would have to be provided in native languages in states where 10 percent of the English-learner population shares a native language and 10,000 students speak that language. The tests would be for those ELLs who "cannot yet access the content in English" and their results would be incorporated into accountability systems. For most states, there would at least have to be Spanish-language assessments, and a few would likely have to provide exams in Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean. It's important to note, though, that native-language assessments aren't always a valid and reliable measure of an ELL's content knowledge either, especially when they receive little to no instruction in their home language.

The bill also places some responsibility for developing English-language proficiency skills on early-childhood educators, as well as for higher education institutions which enroll students who did not reach proficiency in high school and would seem to divert Title III dollars from districts to do that.

Disaggregation of ELL data would go deeper to show the performance of female ELLs versus male ELLs, and would break down the categories of ELL performance by language-proficiency levels as well. The measure would also add an accountability category for former English-learners—those students who've reached fluency and moved out of instructional services. This is something that researchers especially have sought. Under current NCLB accountability rules, districts report on the achievement of ELLs for two years after they are reclassified as proficient. For schools that have done well by these students, they don't get any credit for their longer-term success, and for those who've not done well by them, they escape accountability beyond that period.

Overall, the measure seems to really emphasize English-language acquisition more than academic content achievement for ELLs, notes Gabriela Uro, the director of ELL policy and research for the Council of the Great City Schools. That emphasis could be a problem in the common core era, she notes.

"In the common core, ELLs can't be held back from learning content at the levels the standards require because your English isn't perfect," she said. "We can't have an overemphasis on language proficiency."

I haven't had a chance yet to go through the Republican bill, which just went public this morning. I'll come back to that one later.

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