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ESSA's impact on English Language Learners: What we know so far

December 10, 2015, brought us the long-awaited reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which for the last 14 years was known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The new authorization, named the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) maintains basic components of accountability while devolving much of the control in defining what accountability will look like back to states and local schools. While many of the details of implementation await federal guidance due out in fall 2016, the broad parameters are found in the legislation.

Specifically with regards to English language learners, we know that ESSA moves accountability from Title III, the title directly pertaining to ELL Education, to Title I, the first and largest federal education title, responsible for assisting states and local schools with educating all educationally “disadvantaged students.”  This is significant because Title I is where the funding and influence have always lay in federal education. The intention? This will elevate the visibility of ELLs. The danger? ELL issues now rest--and potentially more easily hide--within a larger department responsible for the success of other student groups. Historically, the Title I Office has not dealt with specific ELL issues like English language development, multilingualism, and multiculturalism.

Other changes from ESSA

Schools, even more than districts, will be responsible now for ELL progress. This includes English proficiency growth and attainment even though reference to “annual measurable achievement objectives” (AMAOs) found under NCLB has gone away. States have more discretion in how to define growth targets and trajectories than before, and this is good since we know from research that ELL growth is nonlinear and subject to multiple, complex factors. It may be bad in that states could set targets that are less ambitious (or, on the flipside, too formulaic), and it is unclear what penalties if any would be set for not meeting targets. States must still identify schools that are not meeting the state established goals for ELLs, just as they would for all students.

Under ESSA, there are two options for including ELLs in language arts or reading tests.

Option 1: Schools would exclude ELLs from language arts/reading testing in year one, and in year two ELLs would test and be counted.

Option 2: Schools would include ELLs in year one language arts/reading testing but omit their scores  for accountability purposes. Growth would be reported in year two, and attainment of content proficiency would be the goal by year three.

Another change: States and local schools may keep former ELLs within that subgroup for four years now--double the time allowed under NCLB. This is significant since it means schools now get to count their successes longer and earn credit for them.

States also must standardize their entry and exit definitions and procedures now. Look to Linquanti and Cook’s work in this area for the latest information on definitions and classification of ELL students.

Distinguishing ELLs from students with disabilities

ESSA officially recognizes the intersection between ELLs and students with disabilities but identifies ELLs as a separate subgroup that must be appropriately assessed for content and language growth. This includes alternate content and language assessments for ELLs with disabilities, in cases where participation in the regular assessments, even with accommodations as allowable, would not be meaningful, valid, or reliable. This recognition will hopefully have the effect of making more prominent the language- and culture-related issues unique to “ELL-ness.”  We know from research that to be successful in meeting the needs of students, the totality of their profile needs to be considered, which is the point of individualized student plans. Despite this long-standing goal, we know that issues related to language development and the role of culture in achievement often have been inadequately considered, leading potentially to over-referral to special education or ineffective interventions with respect to these language and culture issues.

Small shifts with deep implications

State-approved English language development standards still are required under ESSA. These standards must correspond or “align” to content area standards, meaning there must be a relationship between the language goals and content goals as district and schools develop their curricula. Family engagement is more prominent under ESSA. This is certainly good news! And--finally--the out-of-date and derogatory term “limited-English proficient” has been officially replaced with “English learner.”

Putting the research into practice

What does it all mean to you, the practitioner? Hopefully the new law buys you more flexibility to advocate for what you know works for ELLs. We need schools that are firstly language and literacy rich in every classroom. Secondly, we need everyone in our schools to understand the role of culture and primary language in the education of ELLs. Finally, the idea of differentiating instruction for language proficiency level is one that all teachers must understand, not just bilingual and ESL teachers.

The implications of these three points for practice and program model will vary depending on your local situation, but every school needs to look at how their ELLs are being served and whether they are achieving on par with their classmates. ESSA seems to be offering teachers and schools more control over how to accomplish that. Take the reins and do what you know is best for the ELLs you serve.