[lg policy] A New Wave of Federal Flexibility on Dual Language Learners Policy?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed Jan 7 21:35:19 UTC 2015

In the waning days of 2014, as the days reached their shortest and the cold
its deepest, a small bit of dual language learner news sparked up here in
Washington, D.C. The Department of Education agreed to allow
Florida an extra year before including dual language learners and English
language learners’ test scores in school accountability systems
(as part of the state’s No Child Left Behind
waiver). That is, DLLs and ELLs may now be enrolled in Florida schools for
two years—rather than one—before their *proficiency* rates are included in
accountability calculations. They will still be tested, and their academic
*growth* will still be included in accountability systems after one year in
Florida schools. (Sidenote: proficiency measures are those that capture
student mastery of content and skills for a particular grade level. Growth
measures capture students’ progress over time, whether or not they achieve
proficiency.) *Ed Week* has the full story here

As a matter of policy, politics, and research, this is contested turf. That
is, it’s not clear that there is a right answer for when DLLs and ELLs are
ready to be assessed, much less when their scores can be validly included
in accountability systems. As is usual with language learners, the policy
puzzle hinges on how similar and how different they are from their
monolingual peers. As a matter of equity, it’s good that they be assessed
and included in any data portfolio that claims to illustrate how schools
and districts are performing. That is, they should be treated the *same* as
other students. And yet, DLLs and ELLs may have different linguistic
developmental needs than monolingual students, and that the assessments in
use are rarely designed with these differences in mind. After wrestling
with these concerns, policymakers usually try to retrofit assessment
policies to reflect that fact.

In short, there probably isn’t a “correct” policy here. The number of years
before DLLs and ELLs’ scores are included in these systems is probably less
consequential than ensuring that they receive high-quality supports at
school. Of course, it is easier to determine the quality of supports if
their academic progress is monitored, but the timing of the stakes involved
is probably not especially critical.

But when it comes to policy reforms in Washington, questions of substantive
merit are never the whole story. What about the politics? What about the

Well, the Department’s concession to Florida is notable for a number of
reasons. First of all, it’s a reversal of the administration’s earlier
which was that No Child Left Behind
testing rules for DLLs and ELLs clearly required states to include these
students’ test scores in accountability measures after one year in public

Second, it’s indicative of the Department’s new willingness to use waivers
<http://www.edcentral.org/edcyclopedia/waivers/> to adjust core elements of
NCLB’s core approach to DLLs and ELLs. Obama and Duncan have been
criticized by some advocates
for failing to incorporate these students’ needs in their reforms thus far. New
York has also sought similar flexibility
<http://www.p12.nysed.gov/biling/docs/ESEAWaiver04-14.pdf> from No Child
Left Behind
DLL/ELL assessment rules. Florida’s successful bid will make it difficult
for the administration to turn away similar requests from other states.

Third, the news broke right before a major holiday, which is when the
administration (like most administrations) tends to release uncomfortable
education news

Finally, the waiver is notable because it comes at a time when pushback
against required assessments seems to be growing. Teachers unions have
joined Republicans in Congress in calling for fewer tests and lower stakes
for whatever assessments remain. Republican education committee chairs like
Rep. John Kline (MN) and Lamar Alexander (TN) have signaled that they may
pursue an end to NCLB’s annual testing mandate.

While I remain skeptical that the mandate will be meaningfully
changed—mostly because I doubt that NCLB will actually be reauthorized this
Congress—the nation’s seeming anti-testing mood certainly provides an
intriguing backdrop for the Department’s willingness to give more
flexibility around the stakes attached to DLLs and ELLs’ assessment results.

Of course, the politics around this move and the broader testing mandate
are extremely complicated. Civil rights groups, DLL and ELL advocates, and
many others have complained vociferously about various provisions of NCLB,
but almost all cite the law’s assessment data pieces as critical reforms.
These data illuminated the yawning achievement gaps between different
subgroups of students, including between language learners and monolingual
English speakers.

The data also made it possible to develop more complete accounts of
students’ academic growth, which illuminated areas of schools’ success and
failure that were invisible when they only assessed at the end of grade
spans and measured academic proficiency. If a student is three years behind
grade level reading in fourth grade, and makes two years of reading growth
that year, she would score “not proficient” at the end of the year. Without
annual assessments that illustrate her benchmark achievement each year, her
dramatic academic growth is impossible to see.

Is ED’s move the opening of the floodgates towards fewer—and less
consequential—assessments for DLLs and ELLs? Or is it simply another tweak
to suit a few states’ preferences for how their education systems include
DLLs? We’ll see.


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