Re-starting and Strengthening Accountability for English Learners

Part Two: Improving Data Collection for EL Education Equity
Blog Post
Jan. 27, 2022

In the first part of this series we provided an overview of the flexibility state education agencies (SEAs) are being provided as they restart their school accountability systems after a two-year pause. According to draft guidance the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released last month, SEAs and their local education agencies (LEAs) will have the opportunity to refine their accountability systems to ensure opportunity gaps are accurately reflected. For English learners (ELs), understanding whether they have equitable education opportunities can be delineated by measuring things beyond student performance on statewide assessments. Using a more holistic suite of indicators can benefit both historically underserved students and SEAs as a more comprehensive accountability system can ensure resources and support is being funneled to the right schools.

Tweaking the methodologies used to differentiate school performance alone, however, is not enough to advance equity for the heterogeneous students that fall under the EL subgroup. Advocates often make the case that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) represents a floor, not a ceiling, in terms of what states should and can do in pursuit of quality education for all students. This is definitely true for ELs and this second and last installment will outline data collection practices and policies SEAs can adopt that go beyond ESSA’s requirements to ensure all English learners are brought into the school accountability fold.

In the wake of ESSA’s passage, our team wrote about the complexity of EL data, particularly around the non-static nature of the group (i.e. students are constantly entering and leaving the group), and the fact that ELs progress at different rates depending on which stage they are at on the language development spectrum (i.e. level 1, 2, etc). In addition, ELs’ educational outcomes are affected not only by their English skills, but other externalities as well such as poverty. Unfortunately, these and other nuances are not necessarily accounted for when a single data point is used as a proxy for a multitude of backgrounds, experiences, and circumstances.

ESSA already requires states to disaggregate data by EL status, however, states can and should take things a step further to collect and disaggregate data for the various subpopulations that fall under the EL umbrella. This includes students with disabilities that have been dual-identified, students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE), recently arrived ELs/newcomers, and long-term ELs (LTELs). In doing so, states will have access to data that can be incorporated into their accountability systems to provide more oversight and transparency into the educational opportunities for all ELs.

Before collecting this data, however, SEAs must ensure they have uniform statewide definitions/criteria for these sub-English learner populations, if they haven’t done so already. A recent scan of state policies found that less than half of states have a working SLIFE definition and about fifty percent of states define what it means to be a LTEL. What is more, ESSA does not define what constitutes SLIFE or LTEL which means states are free to adopt their own definitions. Once these parameters are created and this data is collected, states can begin to explore how to incorporate each of these groups of students into their school accountability systems to ensure they are not taking a one-size-fits-all approach.

Another group of students that is currently mostly absent from data collection and accountability systems are former ELs, that is students who no longer need language support services because they have met their state’s reclassification requirements. Currently, Title III requires states to monitor and report on students who have recently exited the EL group for four years. This means that after those four years, we are unable to see how these students do in the long-term and in many cases, former EL enrollment is significant. For example, in 2020-21, there were 1,062,290 ELs and 1,053,625 former ELs enrolled in California, and that same year in Virginia there were 104,769 ELs and 55,482 former ELs still enrolled in K-12 schools.

On the accountability side, states are allowed to combine the academic performance of former ELs with that of current English learners for no more than four years after they exit. Although this is permissible under ESSA and 25 states do it, this practice ends up masking the performance of both current and former ELs and obstructs accountability for each of these groups of students in their own right.

These issues can be addressed by expanding the number of years former ELs are monitored from the current four years through the duration of their K-12 education, and by disaggregating and reporting data for current and former ELs. States should also explore creating a separate former EL subgroup in their accountability systems something that only one state currently does (Illinois).

As mentioned in the first post, there is specific funding dedicated to schools identified in need of additional support, and given the recent unprecedented influx of COVID-relief funding, ED encourages SEAs to consider how to leverage all funding on the table. According to the guidance, funds can be used to implement personalized instruction programs, create a trauma-informed school environment, establish early warning systems to promote targeted and timely strategies, and to “stabilize and support the current educator workforce” through professional development activities to help educators and staff build expertise in bilingual education, among other things.

Ultimately, however, accountability systems require data which means a state’s accountability system will be as rigorous and precise as is their data collection. Therefore, as states begin to ramp up their accountability systems it would behoove them to ensure their data collection infrastructure is truly representative of diverse EL populations and other key student groups that have been affected by the pandemic. Only then can we begin to expect accountability systems to accurately identify school and student needs.

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Related Topics
Accountability, Assessment, and Data