Re-starting and Strengthening Accountability for English Learners

Part three: Few Changes to Come for ELs As States Amend Their Accountability Systems
Blog Post
June 29, 2022

As the 2021-2022 school year comes to a close, education leaders have turned their attention to what school accountability will look like next year after being on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the beginning of the year our team discussed how the pause in school accountability created an opportunity for state and local education agencies to rethink their accountability systems to be more inclusive of and equitable for all students, including English learners (ELs). Since then, 19 states plus the District of Columbia have submitted plans to the U.S. Department of Education outlining changes they wish to make to their accountability systems. Unfortunately, a review of these plans revealed that accountability may not look all that different for English learners this coming school year afterall.

Among states that submitted plans to alter their accountability systems, 15 states requested temporary, short-term changes pursuant to the COVID-19 state plan addendum, four states made more permanent changes using the regular amendment process that predates COVID-19, and one state (Hawaii) submitted both short and long-term changes. In regards to whether states made changes that will alter EL accountability, only three states made changes that will impact EL accountability directly (please see Table 1); seven states did not request any EL-related changes; and the majority of states simply requested to shift their long-term goal deadlines for the academic indicators, including the progress in achieving English language proficiency (ELP) indicator, by two years.

Broadly speaking, most states focused on revising the methodologies at the center of their annual meaning differentiation (AMD) systems that are used to identify schools in need of comprehensive or targeted support. To account for data gaps from the last two years, states opted to piece together student data from various years. Hawaii, for example, will use data from SY 2019-2020 for some indicators and 2018-2019 for others, and Wisconsin altered their ELP measure of growth to account for only one years’ worth of data instead of the usual three years that would be required to measure student growth over time (Table 1). This means that accountability plans moving forward are still heavily centered on statewide summative assessments.

Table 1. Alabama, Hawaii, and Wisconsin EL-related Changes

Note: Annual meaningful differentiation (AMD) is the methodology used to measure and compare school performance in each state. For more information, please click here.

Furthermore, although we hoped that states would supplement assessment-based indicators with more opportunity-to-learn measures, so far that does not appear to be the case. Notably missing from state plans were changes to indicators measuring the number of long-term English learners in a school, or the amount of time certain student groups spent in various modes of instruction (i.e. remote/in-person, asynchronous, synchronous time ratios) and the impact on lost instructional time, or ELs’ participation and successful completion of coursework, or the number of English learners who have attained proficiency within their personalized timeline to proficiency. These indicators can provide important supplemental information about ELs’ equitable access to education, and as our team has pointed out before, states have a lot of flexibility in how to incorporate such non-academic measures.

However, instead of adding new indicators, states focused on modifying, shifting, or altogether eliminating their ‘other’ academic measure and/or their School Quality and Student Success (SQSS) measures. For example, Arizona decreased the weight of their SQSS indicator, chronic absenteeism, in grades K–8 and eliminated the indicator for schools serving grades 8–12, and Massachusetts altered their definition of chronic absenteeism from missing 10 percent of the school year to 20 percent. In Arizona, this means that chronic absenteeism will count less in their systems of AMD, and in Massachusetts this change means that students can miss more school before being counted as being chronically absent. Given that chronic absenteeism among ELs skyrocketed during the pandemic, we should be strengthening these indicators, not watering them down.

Additionally, it’s important to note that the majority of states' long-term goals for academic achievement (such as math and English Language Arts), graduation rate, and ELP, more often than not, do not have any bearing on accountability systems. And as education advocates have noted, timelines used for accountability do not necessarily make sense when contextualized through the education trajectories of individual students. Consider: in their COVID-19 addendum DC requested two more years to meet their long-term goals for academic achievement and progress toward ELP. In their original 2016 ESSA plan, DC stated that only 46 percent of their ELs were meeting their individual growth targets every year. As a result, DC established that it would aim to have 85 percent of ELs meeting their individual growth goals by 2039— 23 years later. Now thanks to the COVID-19 addendum, DC has until 2041 to reach this goal, which is long enough for a student to go through their entire K–12 education, twice.

DC is not the only state to adopt a lengthy timeline to improve their outcomes for English learners. When state accountability plans were first approved, timelines ranged from three to 23 years. South Carolina aimed to close their 39 percent ELP gap in 18 years; Illinois hoped to close their 27 percent ELP gap in 16 years; and Texas, which enrolls the second-largest EL population, gave themselves 16 years to close a 5 percent gap. Information about each state’s ELP long-term goals can be found in Table A-6 on page 88 of this document.

Although accountability amendments can be submitted at any time, states were encouraged to submit both short and long-term requests by March 7, 2022 to give the department enough time to review the proposed changes. At this point it is unclear whether more states will pursue changes of their own for the upcoming year. That being said, the information that is available signals that English learner accountability will likely not look much different than it did pre-COVID, despite the disproportionate burden ELs have had to shoulder throughout the pandemic.

This blog is part of a series on restarting school accountability. Please click here for part one and part two.

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Related Topics
ESSA Accountability, Assessment, and Data