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New Guide Aims to Help States, Schools Classify English-Language Learners

As part of a wide-reaching effort to bring more consistency to services for English-language learners, a group of state education officials and ELL experts has unveiled a new set of recommendations on how states and school districts might improve how they identify and initially classify English-learners.

Classification policies and evaluation tools can vary widely from state to state, and even district to district, leaving widespread opportunity for misclassification of students.

As a result, students may be correctly classified as English-learners in one district or state, but may not get the support and services they need in another. Without clarity on how to correct misclassifications, students may remain stuck in the wrong classroom setting for years because educators are reluctant to question the placement.

Participants at a brainstorming session hosted by the Council of Chief State School Officers on how to improve the classification process acknowledged that it's a daunting task.

The CCSSO published a summary of their ideas, providing insight into how state education officials and ELL experts would like to tackle the issue. The summary, written by H. Gary Cook, of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, and Robert Linquanti, a senior research associate at WestEd, a San Francisco-based research organization, captures the recommendations from a May 2014 discussion and debate among state-level officials, ELL experts, and representatives from English Language Proficiency Assessment for the 21st Century (ELPA21) and World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment Consortium (WIDA), the two consortia of states developing new, common-core aligned English-language proficiency tests.

Some school districts participating in the session estimated that up to 5 percent of their students are misclassified. The most errors occur in kindergarten and 1st grade when students are less familiar with testing and other evaluations, Linquanti said.

The summary's authors found consensus that "more thoughtful, transparent, inclusive, and documented processes" are needed to appropriately classify ELLs and to allow for timely correction of misclassifications, and that a "strengthened initial EL classification process could be successfully implemented only with proper and sustained training and monitoring."

The recommendations from the May session are part of a broader effort to identify shared definitions of what it means to be an English-language learner and when those students no longer need language instruction. 

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