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States Weigh How to Revamp Surveys to Identify Potential English-Learners

A fledgling effort to bring more consistency to services for English-language learners is moving ahead with the release of a new set of recommendations on how states and school districts might revise and improve the questions they ask to first identify students who might be in need of English-language instruction.

Home-language surveys—often a series of a few questions about the language(s) a student speaks and understands—have been the primary way educators identify potential ELLs in their schools. But the surveys vary widely from state to state, even school district to school district, and can produce quite different results. And in some places, Arizona in particular, home-language surveys have become the subject of political and civil rights disputes.

Education officials in some states have been brainstorming together with ELL experts on how to improve the surveys so that they yield the best possible information for educators. The results of surveys determine which students are formally assessed to see if they need English-language-acquisition services. It's a high-stakes decision.

A summary of the state officials' ideas was published yesterday by the Council of Chief State School Officers, and provides lots of insight into how state education officials are thinking on this issue. The summary, written by Alison Bailey, an education professor and researcher at UCLA, and Robert Linquanti, a senior research associate at WestEd, a San Francisco-based research organization, captures two days of discussion and debate among state-level officials, ELL experts, and representatives of PARCC, Smarter Balanced, and two other groups of states working together to develop new English-language proficiency tests.

There's consensus that the home-language surveys in use are ripe for improvement and that even the name "home-language survey" might need to be renamed language-use survey to more accurately capture the uses and language exposure that students have both inside and outside their homes.

As Linquanti puts it: "The point is to get the weave of the net just right so we capture the kids in the protected class who need to be assessed, but don't scoop up kids who don't need to be assessed."

Some of the broad suggestions that the group hashed out:

• Making the purpose and intended uses of the surveys very clear;

• Identifying both "essential" and "associated" information to be gleaned;

• Crafting survey questions that  get at those pieces of essential and associated information;

• Making recommendations on how surveys are to be administered more accurately and effectively; and

• Specifying how survey responses should be interpreted by educators to arrive at a decision.


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