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The Effects of NCLB Accountability on ELLs

The Senate’s bipartisan Every Child Achieves Act (a bill to replace No Child Left Behind) has made recent headway in the Senate and may be on the Senate floor in the coming weeks. If the bill succeeds and is signed into law, the federal government’s role in educational accountability will shrink substantially. As the process continues, it is useful to see how our current accountability system impacts English language learners (ELLs) and dual language learners(DLLs).

When No Child Left Behind (NCLB) became law in 2001, states were suddenly faced with a new federal requirement: setting standards in English Language Proficiency (ELP) for ELLs and adopting an assessment that aligns with the standards. Most states struggled — it wasn’t until the 2006–07 school year that all states had developed ELP standards.

Under NCLB, states are also required to develop accountability measures for districts receiving funds under Title III (the federal grant program created to improve language instruction for ELLs and immigrant students). The measures came in the form of three Annual Measurable Achievement Objectives (AMAOs). AMAO 1 requires increases in the number or percentage of children making progress towards English proficiency, while AMAO 2 requires increases in the number or percentage of children attainingEnglish proficiency. AMAO 3 requires that current ELL students make adequate yearly progress (AYP) — that is, that ELLs meet NCLB’s content knowledge targets. However, in each of these categories, states are free to set their own AMAO targets.

AMAO 1 requires increases in the number or percentage of children making progress in learning English

For their AMAO 1 and 2 goals, most states set a target percentage of students that need to achieve a minimum measure of growth and a minimum level of proficiency, respectively, on ELP assessments. Other states set a target number of students meeting certain growth and proficiency levels.

States’ wide latitude in setting these targets makes interstate comparisons difficult. A close look at the student percentage targets and the minimum target scores set by states on ELP assessments reveals how much expectations for accountability vary across states and how low some of these expectations can be. Let’s take a look at California and Texas, which together account for nearly 40 percent of all ELLs in the U.S.

AMAO 2 requires increases in the number or percentage of children attaining English proficiency.

To meet AMAO 1 in California for the 2013–14 school year, 59 percent of a district’s students had to move up one proficiency level on the California English Development Test (CELDT) administered in spring 2014 (a 1.5 percent increase from the previous year). To meet AMAO 1 in Texas, the percentage of a district’s ELLs that had to progress one proficiency level on the Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System (TELPAS) went from 49.5 percent in 2013 to just 50 percent the following year.

Meanwhile, to satisfy AMAO 2 in California in 2014, only 22.8 percent of a district’s students considered ELL for less than five years and 49 percent of students considered ELL for over five years had to achieve English language proficiency (1.4 and 2 percent higher, respectively, than the previous year’s targets). In Texas, 15 percent of a district’s students considered ELL for 1–4 years and 29 percent of students considered ELL for five years or more had to achieve an advanced level of proficiency on TELPAS (0.5 and 1 percent higher, respectively, than the 2013 targets).

AMAO 3 requires that current ELL students make adequate yearly progress (AYP) — that is, that ELLs meet academic content knowledge and achievement standards

AMAO 3 is by far the least frequently met target by Title III districts. At least 50 percent of districts in 32 states plus D.C. and Puerto Rico failed to meet their AYP requirements in the 2012–2013 school year. ((This calculation is based on data from the “SY 2012-2013 Consolidated Performance Reports Part I” for the 50 states, plus D.C. and Puerto Rico, provided by the U.S. Department of Education.)) Why the widespread failure? First , funding is generally insufficient to adequately support ELL programs. Second, success on AMAO 3 requires students that have not yet mastered the English language to demonstrate proficiency on academic content assessments conducted in English. In fact, of the ten states with the highest percentages of ELLs, only Colorado, New York, Washington and Texas offered at least one standardized assessment in ELLs’ native language in 2012. ((Ibid.)) The result: ELLs are faring a lot worse on standardized reading/language arts, mathematics, and science assessments than their non-ELL peers.

Failure to meet AMAOs is rampant. In Florida, where 10 percent of students are ELLs, 94 percent of school districts failed to meet AMAO targets for two consecutive years, and 88 percent failed to meet them for four consecutive years. ((This calculation is based on data from Florida’s “Consolidated State Performance Report: Parts I and II,” provided by the U.S. Department of Education.)) Even worse, in California, the state with the highest percentage of ELLs, 58 percent of Title III districts failed to meet targets for four consecutive years. ((Ibid.))

Consequences of Failing AMAOs

It’s fashionable in education policy circles to talk about how NCLB sets unreasonable standards for schools, districts, and states — and then unfairly punishes those that fall short. So what terrible, prescriptive consequences await districts that consistently fall short on AMAOs? The details are mostly left in the hands of states, though NCLB requires them to implement increasing levels of hands-on oversight.

First, each year that a district fails to meet at least one AMAO target, it is required to send notifications to the parents of ELLs (or of ELLs eligible for Title III services) informing them of the targets that were missed. Second, districts that fail to meet AMAOs for two consecutive years are required to develop an improvement plan. And third, those that fail to meet AMAOs for four consecutive years are required to make curricular, programmatic, and instructional changes to their ELL programs, replace faculty and staff involved in the failure, or have their funding terminated. ((Retrieved from the “National Evaluation of Title III Implementation - Report on State and Local Implementation.” Prepared by American Institutes for Research for the U.S. Department of Education.)) Despite the various measures states can take to intervene when districts fail to meet AMAOs, they generally opt for NCLB’s least punitive and involved measures — such as helping districts develop improvement plans — that are seldom meaningful for districts.

When states mandate improvement plans, they do so in a way that can be challenging for districts to follow and implement. According to Pam Bejerano, the federal programs supervisor for Centennial School District in Portland, it is difficult for schools to follow improvement plans since the frequent modifications to AMAO targets makes them “elusive.” Districts also find it challenging to implement the plans because states require them to create isolated plans for ELLs, which are often difficult to incorporate as stand-alone measures into separate district-wide and Title I improvement plans.

Other times, states do not intervene at all. For example, in a 2013 audit of California’s administration of Title III, the Department of Education found that California failed to show evidence that it was providing oversight of or assistance with improvement plans to districts that missed AMAO requirements after four consecutive years.

And the lack of structured state support is a big problem for districts working to improve services for their ELL students. That’s according to Alicia Passante, ESL manager for Center City Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C., who says, “It would be helpful if states could shift from oversight and monitoring to explicit programmatic guidance to schools so that their programs are designed in alignment with the expectations of Title III.”

Passante further pointed to the difficulty Center City schools have had in meeting AMAO 1, since many of their ELL students are also identified as having disabilities. For these students, meeting the same growth targets as their ELL peers is challenging, and yet the AMAO system expects them to do so in the same amount of time. This is a perfect illustration of the need for a more hands-on state role in helping districts design and fund effective ELL programs that are aligned to state AMAO targets. Some local needs, such as effective ELL instruction for students with disabilities, require resources and expertise that districts often lack. Without more active participation from states in developing and implementing these programs, districts are unable to serve all ELLs in ways that help them meet AMAO targets.

Summing Up: Thoughts on Improving Accountability Policies

States’ lack of capacity requires districts to develop their own strategies for meeting AMAOs. At Center City, ESL and general education teachers work together to help their ELL students meet AMAOs. They develop individual plans for students based on a detailed analysis of their proficiency levels on the different language components of the WIDA ACCESS for ELLs assessment (Washington, D.C.’s ELP assessment), and set tangible goals that align to the AMAO targets. Critically, the process includes the main stakeholders — students and parents — starting at the beginning of the year. As a result, students, parents, and instructional staff are all held accountable to the targets and know the steps they are taking to meet them. Parents are also kept in the loop as to how their children are progressing through quarterly ELL progress reports.

The practices used at Center City point to an important feature of NCLB accountability that should be kept in mind for any future accountability system — they collect and share data so teachers and staff can better support ELLs. Good data is an essential part of any effort to improve ELLs’ education. But useful ELL data can be hard to come by via assessments that are only in English. To better serve ELLs, states should also test them more fairly by using the option to test students in their native language.

When data indicate that ELLs are not being served well, the federal government should come down harder on states to ensure that they provide struggling districts with meaningful technical support in designing and implementing better ELL programs. But more aggressive oversight and intervention necessarily requires more resources. So the federal government should allocate more funds for Title III districts. The lack of funds to implement effective programs and supports obscures the potential merits of Title III’s accountability system.

Given the increasing momentum of the Every Child Achieves Act in the Senate, the current AMAO system might be on its way out. That bill eliminates AMAOs and places all ELL accountability within Title I, a move that would de-prioritize the needs of ELLs. Given what we have learned from NCLB, the ECAA’s provisions seem unlikely to substantially improve how American schools and districts support ELLs.

This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group.Click here for more information on this team's work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter,click here, enter your contact information, and select "Education Policy.""