Williams: In Praise of New Jersey, Illinois, Louisiana — 3 States Smartly Using ESSA to Help English Learners

Advocates for English learners (ELs) celebrated the 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act as a significant step forward for these students.
The new law, which replaced the much-maligned No Child Left Behind, includes a number of big changes that give states room to rethink how they serve English learners. As ESSA neared passage in 2015, I worried that there was no “reason to believe that states are willing to design accountability systems that actually require them to focus on schools with lots of underprivileged and underserved kids.”
Now that a handful of states have submitted plans to the U.S. Department of Education, we can start to check the tape. Although it’s easy to complain about the ways that states are perjuring their responsibilities to support equity for multilingual kids (and indeed, many states appear to be falling down on that job), it’s critical to also identify promising new EL policy innovations and areas where states are making good use of their newfound flexibility. Education leaders in New Jersey, Louisiana, and Illinois are doing just that.
This is more important now than ever, since their numbers have grown steadily in recent years — nearly one-quarter of U.S. students speak a non-English language at home.
English learners under ESSA
Here’s ESSA’s general structure: To qualify for their portion of the largest stream of federal K-12 funding (Title I funding), states must define what English language proficiency looks like for ELs in their schools. They must also set a timeline for ELs to reach proficiency, along with annual progress targets over that timeline. For instance, a state might decide that ELs must score a 5.0 on its English language proficiency assessment to be counted as proficient, that he or she must do this within five years of being identified as an EL, and that he or she must make sufficient progress toward that end each year to stay on track.
States must then use these student-level targets to set goals for schools — for instance, a state might decide that schools should have 75 percent of ELs meeting their annual English progress targets by the 2029–30 school year. States must also use their long-term benchmarks to set gradually escalating goals for schools. Continue the example I just suggested: If 27 percent of ELs hit their annual English language proficiency growth targets last year, the state might require schools have at least 33 percent making those targets next year, and 38 percent the following year — with an eye toward steadily increasing the goal to the 75 percent benchmark by 2029–30.
ESSA also requires states to build ELs’ success into a school accountability system. States must decide how much progress these students make toward acquiring English will contribute to a school’s public rating and how it will fit in with other factors, such as academic outcomes, school climate measures, and chronic absenteeism. Finally, states need to decide what happens to schools where ELs are persistently missing those English language targets.
Does this seems like a lot to ask of states? Is your head spinning? Remember, first, that the return is considerable: This is how states earn a share of the federal government’s annual $15 billion in Title I spending, money earmarked to support low-income students.
Second, remember that states have significant latitude in how they meet all of the above requirements. Finally, note that many states were eager to see the end of No Child Left Behind’s strict, prescriptive approach to educational equity and civil rights.
As Patrick Murphy, of California’s Public Policy Institute, told Education Week a month after the bill passed, “It's like the dog that chases the car … This is what the state agencies wanted, to figure it out for themselves.”
Each of the above steps launches a handful of subsequent questions (and state decisions about how to answer them). In addition to the ones already mentioned, states must figure out how they define grade-level academic success for ELs, how they test and capture data for ELs who have recently arrived in U.S. schools, and much more.
As I’ve noted before, in and of itself, this expanded state flexibility on EL issues is neither pox nor panacea. Some states are likely to use their new autonomy to design systems that support equitable opportunities for ELs, while others will use it somewhat less constructively.
The answers states offer on these and other similar topics are both critical to ensuring that ELs get equitable educational opportunities — and super boring. Fortunately, the state plans we already have offer a handful of interesting new policy innovations that could serve as examples for other states to follow.
Tracking ELs’ progress more fairly
Start with EL students’ annual English language progress targets. Many states are adopting a “growth-to-target” approach to setting these benchmarks. These include the District of Columbia, North Dakota, and Colorado.
Here’s the basic gist: Growth-to-target models set ELs’ annual and long-term goals to reflect their baseline English abilities when they arrive in U.S. schools. These models give students with very little English exposure more time to reach full proficiency, and they give students with stronger initial English skills less time. Makes perfect sense. Even more important, growth-to-target models often allow students to get credit for overperforming their annual goals.
It goes like this: If a student makes two years of English learning progress in their first year but slows down and makes only a half-year of progress in their second, these models continue counting them as meeting their targets — so long as their overall progress keeps them on track to reach full proficiency in time.
Dry as it sounds, this is exciting progress for these students. Historically, ELs have often been held accountable for making exactly the same English language growth each year. Trouble is, research reliably shows that different levels of language proficiency take different amounts of time to develop. That is, many students move rapidly from basic to intermediate English language skills but then take longer to move to advanced levels of academic language proficiency.
What’s more, ELs’ English language development is significantly affected by a range of factors, including their parents’ educational levels, socioeconomic status, and much more. That’s why it’s so great that growth-to-target models mix some flexibility into the (important) process of setting accountability goals for ELs.
Making sure ELs count
No matter how states set ELs’ individual goals for each year, their next step is to decide how to incorporate these students’ annual progress into their schools’ performance ratings. Again, ESSA leaves some important decisions up to states.
First: How much should ELs’ progress toward English language proficiency matter to schools? Most states are making it 5 percent to 10 percent of schools’ scores. This low weighting could mean that these students get lost in the shuffle. For instance, if a school is struggling to raise its overall rating in the state’s accountability system, it’s likely to focus on factors that the state has weighted more heavily. If the state counts academic growth at 30 percent and ELs’ growing English language abilities at 5 percent, there’s a very good chance that the latter will be lost in the mix.
In this regard, New Jersey deserves unique praise. The state sets ELs’ progress on English as 20 percent of schools’ ratings. This is a strong move to prioritize these students’ linguistic and academic development, and other states should follow suit.
Second: How can states make sure that ELs matter for every school? Although these students have historically been concentrated in traditional immigrant gateway communities, this has changed in the past decade. ELs are increasingly present in every state. Since 2002, South Carolina’s number of ELs has more than quintupled, and North Dakota’s, Kentucky’s, and Mississippi’s have more than tripled. States such as Kansas, Arkansas, Delaware, Maine, and Maryland have seen their number of ELs at least double.
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This poses a challenge for school accountability systems. Federal privacy laws make it difficult to collect data on ELs’ performance in schools where there are only a handful of students present. This is a sensible protective measure: If there are only two ELs in a school, any public reporting on that school’s EL performance would unduly disclose these students’ individual academic standing to the broader public.
But this raises another problem. How can states hold a school accountable for supporting ELs’ development if that school does not have enough ELs enrolled to allow their performance to be shared publicly?
Louisiana has found an innovative way of addressing this challenge. The state discovered that less than a third of its schools have too few ELs to allow public reporting of their students’ progress learning English. Rather than accept that the majority of its schools would not be held accountable for ELs, the state decided to include each EL’s progress toward English proficiency into calculations of his or her academic achievement each year. That way, her increases in English language proficiency would count just as much toward her school’s overall score as her increases in academic achievement (until she reaches full English proficiency).
Here’s the upshot: While privacy laws will still prevent the state from publishing information on how these schools’ ELs are doing at learning English, this accountability system sets incentives to encourage schools to prioritize their progress.
Other states with relatively small and/or spread-out EL populations should consider such a system to ensure that all schools pay attention to ELs.
Third: How do ELs perform as they reach English proficiency? All states collect specific data on ELs’ linguistic and academic progress so long as they remain in the subgroup. However, very few collect data tracking how these students perform when they reach proficiency and are “reclassified” as former-ELs.
This can perpetuate unfair stereotypes about ELs’ achievement. ELs have historically been defined (in part) as students whose English skills are not yet sufficiently strong to allow them to demonstrate their knowledge on standardized assessments. Unfortunately, many accountability systems still penalize schools when ELs fall short of proficiency on standardized math and ELA assessments.
Here’s a more interesting — and fairer — question: How do ELs perform on these tests once they’ve become proficient in English? Illinois is about to find out, since it has decided to collect specific data on former-ELs’ academic performance. This is a simple, straightforward decision that costs little to nothing. All states should be keeping track of ELs’ performance once they reach English proficiency. By tracking their achievement over time, former-EL data will allow states to better evaluate how their schools are serving these kids. Indeed, when these data are available, researchers have found that former-ELs perform just as well as non-ELs on long-term academic indicators like graduation rates.
Now what?
This is far from an exhaustive list. New Jersey is also proposing to allow older ELs an extra year to graduate from high school for the purpose of calculating graduation rates. Colorado is trying to raise ELs’ math and literacy scores without emphasizing proficiency rates (using scale scores), which is a generally more appropriate way to set academic goals for these students. In other words, the state gives schools credit for every increase in ELs’ academic scores — instead of only rewarding schools for the percentage of their ELs who attain full proficiency in math and literacy in a particular year.
And while many states are requesting an EL accountability grace period for several years while they switch language assessments, Illinois is promising to use data from its new assessment to retroactively set goals for its ELs.
How’s your head? Spun completely off yet? Just remember, this is only the first round of state plans. Just over a dozen states have finalized their plans; there’s tons more to come. And since ESSA significantly weakens the federal role in overseeing states’ EL policies, transparent, public reviews are critical for guarding against inequity while also elevating interesting new ideas — even when they’re boring.

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