Connecticut, national groups issue reports on English language learners

March 31, 2015

In response to concerns about the performance of Connecticut’s English Language Learners (students whose first language is not English and have limited English proficiency), who earned the lowest rates of proficiency and average scaled score on the NAEP in the country, Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden) appointed the English Language Acquisition and Educational Equity Workgroup this February, a panel charged with making recommendations to improve the state’s English Language Learner (ELL) programs. The panel, chaired by State Representative Juan Candelaria (D-New Haven) and Kelvin Roldán, released their recommendations this month on the heels of two national reports on ELL programs.

The Education Commission of the States (ECS), an organization that catalogs and reviews education policies for all 50 states, published a review of ELL programs with recommendations based on state programs and policies with demonstrated impact. The other report, published by the Working Group on ELL Policy (a panel of national experts in education), consisted of updated recommendations released in anticipation of the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)/No Child Left Behind(NCLB), expected sometime next month. Although these recommendations, updated from the original 2011 set, are geared primarily toward federal legislators, they can still provide valuable guidance on best practices in ELL policy, as well as a glimpse of the possible direction the federal ELL requirements might take.

Many of the specific recommendations the Connecticut panel published touch on similar suggestions made by both the ECS and Working Group on ELL Policy reports. Some of these recommendations include:

  • Extend eligibility for ELL services from the current 30 months to 60 months

This extension of eligibility aligns closely with a Working Group on ELL Policy recommendation drawing on evidence that shorter programs did not accurately reflect the amount of time required for students at the lowest level of initial proficiency in English to become proficient. The report recommends that states introduce timelines to English language proficiency, targeting five years for students with the lowest initial level of proficiency and establishing shorter timelines for more proficient students.

The Working Group on ELL Policy report and the ECS review emphasize the need for flexibility for students, rather than only extending the time permitted to receive ELL services. The Working Group on ELL Policy’s report recommends that states monitor former ELL students, reporting the percentage of long-term ELL students—those not proficient after five years — and set expectations for reducing this number through the development of “individual acceleration plans” and supports. The ECS review includes a similar recommendation to states, recommending that former ELL students be tracked beyond the federal two-year requirement.

Unlike Connecticut’s panel or the Working Group on ELL Policy, the ECS review of state policies does not specify a timeline or limit to eligibility, but focuses on improving the identification and reclassification of ELL students to make sure students classified appropriately. These recommended actions include standardizing statewide tools (ideally avoiding multiple tools) used for classifying ELL students, ensuring staff have the information and training needed to conduct reliable and valid administration of evaluations, mechanisms to correct identification errors. By improving the means of identifying students with limited English proficiency and determinations regarding their continuation in an ELL program, states can ensure students receive only the ELL services they need and recognizing when a student has achieved proficiency more accurately.

  • Allow interstate reciprocity of teacher certification, alternate pathways to improve capacity

Each report recognizes the lack of educators with the cultural and linguistic competency to work with ELL students, and touch on the need to improve the capacity of high-quality educators serving ELL students. The Working Group on ELL Policy offers a couple of recommendations on the need to recruit ELL teachers and administrators, as well as increase the capacity of post-secondary institutions to train educators in research-based ELL instruction. The ECS report, however, goes into much further detail, including specific strategies to boost capacity (loan forgiveness programs aimed at ELL teachers, recruiting former ELL students or parents of ELL students to pursue teaching careers) and improve quality of ELL educators (include ELL-specific criteria on teaching evaluations, requiring professional development to include ELL instruction for all teachers). ECS highlights Massachusetts’ “Sheltered English Immersion” endorsement, which the state plans to make a requirement not only for teachers, but administrators, who work with ELL students. However, the report does warn against the belief that certification/licensing or professional development are the “only answer” for ELL program improvement.

  • Facilitate research-based pilots of innovative instruction and programs for ELL students

The Working Group on ELL Policy’s report does not specifically recommend pilot programs, but makes several recommendations regarding the use of research and data. These include developing a program of research to inform instructional practice and administration of ELL programs, and addressing the research and data needs of states, districts and individual educators.

While the Working Group on ELL Policy’s report already focuses its recommendations primarily at the federal level, the ECS directs their recommendations related to research and innovation to federal policies. In addition to improving the reporting and communication methods of ELL data (“disseminating these data through a website is not enough”), ECS suggests states be allowed to build innovative approaches to ELL programs through their waiver applications.

  • Provide adequate funding for programs to succeed

The Working Group on ELL Policy does not spend significant time on the level of funding, emphasizing the uses to which formula funds are put. However, ECS takes up the issue of adequate funding in their report as the first ELL policy element. The report recognizes Maryland for having the most generous ELL funding formula in the country, providing nearly double the base rate for each ELL student through a .9 weight. However, ECS notes that providing adequate funding alone is not sufficient. Other recommendations for state funding systems include differentiated or tiered funding that takes several factors into consideration, such as disability, limited school attendance, concentration of ELL students and diversity of language within a school or district, and when students enter the ELL program. The report also recommends dedicating funding not only to the ELL program in general (preventing districts and schools to divert funds to general budgets) but also dedicating funding to specific, critical, yet often overlooked, functions of an ELL program, including monitoring ELL students after they have exited the program and at-risk funding streams to support students who qualify for both types of services.

  • Allow students to take standardized tests, including the new Smarter Balanced Assessment, in their home language

With ELL students speaking roughly 140 distinct languages, this recommendation is a critical, but difficult, measure to carry out. However, because the ESEA/No Child Left Behind includes guidance on making state assessments (such as Smarter Balanced) available in a student’s appropriate language, both the ECS and Working Group on ELL Policy reports focus more on the alignment of federal assessment and accountability requirements, rather than the language, content or format of the assessments themselves.

In one of the ECS reports recommendations to federal, rather than state, legislators, the report suggests aligning the accountability and assessment requirements of ESEA Title I (assessment of core academic skills and knowledge) and Title III (assessment of proficiency of English for ELL students), and coordinating with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The Working Group on ELL policy also includes a recommendation to improve articulation of Title I and Title III accountability requirements, specifically suggesting to move the Title III provisions into Title I for a more accurate, coordinated evaluation of ELL student progress. The report further recommends that states set ELL performance standards in a way that allows ELL students to meet the grade level content demands, but also reflects their English language proficiency at time in system (increasing performance expectations with length of time in the ELL program).

Both the ECS and Working Group on ELL Policy reports include recommendations the Connecticut panel has not yet released, concerning pre-kindergarten services to ELL students, as well as family engagement policies that address the unique, substantial barriers ELL families face. You can read the full ECS review of state ELL policies here, and the Working Group on ELL Policy recommendations here. For more information about the Connecticut panel’s findings and recommendations, visit the Connecticut General Assembly website.

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