Beyond Deficit: Shifting Mindsets on English Learner Accountability

Blog Post
March 18, 2022

As springtime approaches, schools will begin testing students to gauge how much progress they have made in subjects such as math, reading/language arts, and science over the last year. This will be the first time all students without exception will be required to take these tests since spring of 2019. States will be using students’ scores on these tests to restart their accountability systems and identify schools in need of additional support, a process that has also been on hold for the last two years. As our team recently wrote, there are special considerations that should be taken to ensure English learners’ (ELs) opportunity to learn is fully represented in school accountability systems, including collecting and disaggregating data for various subpopulations that fall under the EL umbrella.

Accountability systems implemented in line with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) vary from state to state, which means the question of whether ELs are afforded equitable access to education will have a different answer depending on where the question is asked. Despite this variability one thing is certain, U.S. school accountability is still heavily based on parameters that do not adequately account for English learners, and as a result, state and local education agencies are often incentivized to find ways to dilute ELs’ impact on school performance.

Recently, state lawmakers in Alabama introduced a bill that would exclude ELs from the state’s school accountability system for the first five years of enrollment. The proposal would exclude English learners’ scores on statewide academic assessments (like math and reading) from the calculations used to determine performance grades for individual schools, which are assigned using an A-F letter system. The rationale for excluding ELs is that schools with high numbers of these students are unfairly punished with lower grade ratings, which hurts teacher morale.

That school system leaders in Alabama feel the need to compel lawmakers to pass such a drastic bill highlights a central tension in the design of accountability systems. ESSA requires states to include an indicator that measures student achievement in certain content areas as measured by statewide assessments. However, annual state assessments are, for the most part, administered in English which means ELs’ test scores may not fully reflect how much they have learned if they have yet to reach English proficiency. This monolingual approach to assessment and education in the U.S. was not developed for ELs, and yet, their educational capabilities and trajectories are heavily defined by them.

In addition, the EL subgroup is often described as having a revolving door whereby it consistently loses students as they reach English proficiency, while new ELs continue to be identified. This means that the EL subgroup consistently reflects the performance of students who are still being tested in a language they do not fully understand. To date, some attempts to address this “gap that can’t go away” have only worked to decrease transparency and accountability over ELs’ academic performance. ESSA, for example, allows states to combine academic performance data of former and current ELs for accountability purposes. However, doing so can create an inaccurate picture of both groups of students. According to their ESSA plans, 42 states adopted this approach for EL accountability.

Tools to bridge this gap between content and language for ELs do exist and are allowed by federal law in the form of native language assessments and accommodations. A recent scan of state policies found that 31 states plus the District of Columbia offer native language assessments, in one form or another, most commonly in math or science. However, data on whether these tools are actually used in the classroom are virtually nonexistent. And when it comes to accountability, states such as New Jersey and Texas have also adopted policies that undermine if and when results on these assessments count towards accountability measures. Here, both states exempt ELs who take native language assessments from their EL academic progress measures.

Academic indicators, such as performance on statewide assessments, carry significant weight in school accountability systems. And although English skills can impact ELs’ academic performance, excluding ELs from accountability is not the solution because it hinders our ability to see how these students are faring and identify where additional support—whether financial or instructional—is needed, which is the sole purpose of accountability.

Instead of finding ways to further dilute and exclude these students, states should focus on incorporating measures that create a more holistic picture of their educational opportunities and capabilities. When it comes to academic performance on statewide assessments, this can be achieved by creating a former EL subgroup and including their performance in school accountability calculations–a policy that Illinois has already adopted. In doing so, school accountability will reflect the academic performance of former ELs, many of whom have been known to outperform their non-EL peers. Solutions such as this address the fact that accountability systems were not designed with ELs in mind without being highly punitive, and offer school systems the chance to demonstrate a more complete picture of EL student outcomes.

Federal and state accountability systems often place local education leaders in difficult positions as they balance their civil rights obligations to certain groups of students, such as ELs, and local pressures to be highly ranked. Given the pause in statewide assessments throughout the pandemic, it is likely that students will be out of practice in taking standardized tests, if they have ever taken them at all, and accountability systems are bound to reflect those scores. Insofar as school accountability systems continue to perpetuate a deficit-oriented perspective over ELs’ abilities, they will continue to incentivize questionable accountability policies that do not do justice to students, nor the teachers dedicated to their educational development.

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Related Topics
Accountability, Assessment, and Data