Can Florida agree with California on who an English-language learner is? Can Texas and Illinois move closer to using the same criteria for deciding when a student is no longer an ELL?
Will all, or at least most, states be able to share a more consistent way of defining different levels of English proficiency?
Those questions may soon be answered.
With a just-released set of recommendations from the Council of Chief State School Officers to help guide them, most states are now set to embark on an effort to bring much more uniformity to identifying who English-learners are and when those students are no longer in need of language instruction. The goal is to move all states to a more consistent playing field over the next four to five years.
Doing so would upend current practice, which for decades has had states and local school districts using very different approaches to identifying ELLs and reclassifying them as fluent. It would also lead, experts say, to much more comparability among states and districts for how well they are serving this growing population of students.
"If we can move states toward more coherence around English-learners, that is only going to improve services for these students," said Robert Linquanti, a senior research associate at WestEd, a San Francisco-based research organization, and a co-author of the CCSSO policy recommendations.
The U.S. Department of Education is an important driver of the states' effort to move toward a more consistent approach to identifying and reclassifying English-learners.
States belonging to the consortia that are designing shared assessments for the Common Core State Standards—as well as the two groups developing new English-language-proficiency tests—agreed, as a condition of receiving federal grant money for those endeavors, to work together to establish more uniform definitions of ELLs.
The hope is that even states not participating in any of the assessment groups will be part of the effort, especially Texas, where more than 800,000 English-learners attend public schools.
"No one is imposing this on states," Mr. Linquanti said. "It's completely voluntary for states to do this, but at the same time, most of them signed an agreement saying they would participate in moving toward a common definition."
In the guidelines written by Mr. Linquanti and H. Gary Cook, an associate research scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the authors spell out four areas for states to tackle.
The first is identification. Home-language surveys are the principal way for educators to identify potential ELLs, but the surveys, depending on the questions that get asked, can produce very different results.
For example, simply asking a parent to answer whether a language other than English is spoken in the home could yield both false positives and false negatives. For example, a kindergarten student may live in a home with a Spanish-speaking grandparent, with whom one parent may communicate in that langauge. But the same student may only speak in English with both parents and also have attended preschool where only English was spoken. On the flip side, recently adopted children from overseas may live in an English-only home, but still be far from being proficient in the language themselves.
Ensuring that parents understand the purpose of the home-language survey is also critical for yielding useful, accurate information, Mr. Linquanti said. If immigrant parents fear that the survey might be an attempt by the school to determine citizenship status, for example, they may not answer questions truthfully.
The second area involves confirming, or ruling out, that a student is actually in need of services. States and districts use different methods now to determine English-proficiency levels and exactly what language services students will need. Some, like California and Florida, use their annual English-language proficiency assessments. Many more use a screener, or placement test.
Mr. Linquanti and Mr. Cook call for making those procedures and tools across states and districts more standardized, and recommend that states agree on a common process for addressing situations when students are mistakenly placed in language services, or are mistakenly left out of such services.
A third issue is defining what it means to be "English proficient."
This will require states to work on how precisely they judge when a student has reached proficiency. In some states now, students' scores on the reading and writing portions of their English-language-proficiency assessments receives more weight than listening and speaking, while in others, all four domains are considered equally. Under the guidelines, the first step would be to compare what states are currently using as their descriptions of English-language proficiency to find similarities and differences. Already, a large number of states use the same English-language-proficiency standards as members of the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment, or WIDA, consortium.
This matter must be dealt with by states right away, Mr. Linquanti said. That's because both of the common assessment consortia—the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC—will begin field-testing next spring, and will need some broader agreement among states on proficiency descriptions in order to determine appropriate testing accommodations for ELL test-takers.
Finally, states must grapple with the high-stakes decisions that educators make on reclassifying students as fluent and ready to exit English-language-instruction services. Again, criteria for these decisions run the gamut. A dozen states only consider students' results on the annual English-language-proficiency tests, while most others use other factors as well, ranging from GPA to parent input.
This issue, Mr. Linquanti said, is perhaps the most critical because if students are reclassified too soon, they will be at high risk for academic failure. If kept in ELL programs too long, students may miss out on fuller access to academic content.
The key recommendation is that states and districts develop criteria that rely on students' linguistic abilities and not require a minimum level of performance on an academic content test, which is what several states do now.
"This is the important piece of the guidance," he said. "It's really about working toward removing the academic achievement criteria as explicit requirements to exit the [ELL] status."
At the same time, Mr. Linquanti said, the criteria should still allow for those educators who are closest to the students to make judgments on reclassification but that are based on more-standardized tools.