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Iowa Task Force Outlines Challenges for State's English-Language Learners

Just under 5 percent of students in Iowa's K-12 schools are English-language learners, a share that has risen every year for more than a decade. And in 23 of Iowa's school districts, English-learners comprise more than 10 percent of the student body.

That demographic shift alone—coupled with very low achievement levels for students whose first language is not English—prompted state education officials to take a closer look at what policies and practices are needed to better serve Iowa's growing population of English-learners. These are issues that many states that have experienced a rapid influx of immigrant families must tackle.

Iowa took it on this fall, with a task force assigned to look at ELLs, the instructional practices being used to teach them, and their academic outcomes. The task force's findings are outlined in a report that was published last week by the Iowa Department of Education.

Among the chief challenges for the state's ELL population according to the task force:

• The gaps in proficiency rates on state math and reading exams between English-learners and native English speakers are "unacceptable;"

• A mismatch between the numbers of English-learners and the numbers of educators who are qualified to teach them;

• Lack of data to know how English-learners who are reclassified as fluent are performing academically.

The task force offers a list of  recommendations to improve school districts' services for English-learners, including the establishment of a permanent advisory panel, as well as an ELL committee that can advise districts and work across every division of the state department of education. It also recommends that the state create a consistent professional development program for teachers to understand characteristics of ELL students, how second-language acquisition works, and the types of research-based instruction and assessment practices that work best for English-learners.

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