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ESEA Rewrite Could Serve as 'Huge Civil Rights' Bill for ELLs, Some Advocates Say

The proposed rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act could serve as a "huge civil rights protection" for the nation's 5-million plus English-language learners, some ELL advocates say.

The most significant change in the legislation would shift accountability for English-learner students from Title III (the English-language acquisition section of the ESEA) to Title I (where everyone else's accountability is). 

The legislation would do more to hold all schools, not just those with significant ELL enrollment, accountable for the education of non-native English-speaking students.

"This is significant," said Brenda Calderon, an education policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights organization. "It sends a signal that (ELLs) cannot be ignored."

English-learners are the fastest-growing student group in the United States, and according to a Migration Policy Institute analysis, at least 70 percent of students who are ELLs in the United States are Spanish-speakers. Some estimates put the number as high as 80 percent.

The proposed legislation "really raises their profile for educators, school districts, and states to ... sit up and pay attention to what these students need to achieve," said Delia Pompa, senior fellow for education policy at the Migration Policy Institute's Center on Immigrant Integration Policy.

My colleagues at Education Week's Politics K-12 blog report that La Raza, along with 30 other civil rights, disability, and education organizations, offered a measured endorsement of the bill, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

"But for us, there is a lot to like with the English-learner provisions," La Raza's Calderon said.

Pompa said: "This time there was a rising awareness of the importance of this group. There was a difference in the tenor of the discussion."

Ramping Up Accountability

The legislation includes a number of other proposed changes for English-language-learner accountability including:

  • Requiring additional reporting data on English-learners with disabilities and long-term English learners, those students who don't reach a sufficient level of English proficiency to be reclassified as fluent within a set period of time.

A federal report released earlier this year found that states and districts are struggling both to identify English-learners who may also have learning disabilities and to steer them to effective programs. 

Most research indicates that it takes students at least four years to become fluent in academic English, the language that allows students to retell a story or understand mathematical word problems. Timing of reclassification is often key. The longer a student is identified as an ELL, the less likely they are to graduate high school.

"Shedding a light on these other categories of English-learners is really important," Calderon said.

  • Establishing statewide standards for determining when students require English-learner services and determining whether students are ready to exit special programs for English learners.

For years, researchers and ELL advocates have expressed concern about the patchwork of entry and exit criteria, even within states, for English-learners, Pompa said.

Less than a month ago, the Council of Chief State School Officers released recommendations on how states and school districts should reclassify English-language learners. CCSSO has also offered guidance on how to identify ELLs as part of an ongoing effort to bring more consistency to services. The report authors wrote that determining when to exit students is a "high-stakes" decision.

Student Testing

As part of their ESEA explainer, the Politics K-12 team reports that states would have two choices when it comes to student testing. Here's an excerpt (in italics) from their reporting:

  • Option A) Include English-language learners' test scores after they have been in the country a year, just like under current law.
  • Option B) During the first year, test scores wouldn't count towards a school's rating, but ELLs would need to take both of the assessments, and publicly report the results. (That's a switch from current law. Right now, they only need to take math in the first year.) In the second year, the state would have to incorporate ELLs' results for both reading and math, using some measure of growth. And in their third year in the country, the proficiency scores of newly arrived ELLs are treated just like any other students'.

Late last year, the U.S. Department of Education granted Florida similar flexibility in how it assesses ELLs. Establishing the change nationally would contradict federal rules that demand all children be counted equally in accountability measures.

ELL advocates have argued that students still learning English should not be expected to immediately excel on annual state tests, with some asserting that it's difficult for beginner English-learner students to get access to the core curriculum in schools and acquire academic knowledge, as well as English-language skills.

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