What are states doing to support ELLs in becoming college- and career-ready?

Nelson Flores
Wednesday, October 25, 2017
College- and Career-Readiness
English Language Learners

C-SAIL’s partner states offer a range of contexts for understanding the implementation of college- and career-readiness (CCR) standards for English language learners (ELLs). Two of our partner states, Kentucky* and Ohio, have historically had few ELLs, though both have experienced a doubling of their numbers within the past 10 years. One of our partner states, Massachusetts, has a moderate and growing ELL population. Two of our partner states, California and Texas, have long histories of working with ELLs. Despite these differences, there is one commonality across all of C-SAIL’s partner states: in C-SAIL’s interviews conducted in the 2016-2017 school year with state officials, the general consensus was that districts hold the fundamental responsibility for meeting the needs of ELLs. Yet, a closer look at the data suggests that states aren’t completely laissez faire when it comes to ELL policies and handing decisions over to the districts. Below I examine the cases of Ohio, Kentucky, and Texas.

it appears that ELL policy is moving in the direction of centralization when the momentum of general education reform is in the direction of decentralization.

Ohio

In Ohio there are few specific state policies related to ELL instruction and the districts have a great deal of discretion in determining their ELL policies. Though appreciative of their local autonomy, districts reported struggling to effectively meet the needs of ELLs and indicated a desire for more state guidance. In response to these demands, Ohio has developed a partnership with the ELPA21 consortium. ELPA21 has spearheaded the development of a new English Language Proficiency Assessment (OELPA) that is now being used as part of the exit criteria from ELL status. ELPA21 is also developing an assessment that will be used to determine eligibility for EL services across all districts. Therefore, while Ohio prides itself on local control, the state, in collaboration with ELPA21, has started to develop more specific and consistent policies related to ELLs. While district leaders generally spoke favorably about these new supports in C-SAIL interviews, there was still a general consensus that they needed more specific guidance on how best to differentiate instruction for ELLs. 

Kentucky

Kentucky is similar to Ohio, in that there are few specific state ELL policies. Yet a closer look at the actual policies indicate that the state does influence district ELL policies. The bulk of this state influence has come through the state’s partnership with the WIDA consortium. WIDA provides its partner states with an assessment that all districts are expected to administer in identifying ELLs which ensures a common definition of ELLs across districts. Districts are also expected to administer the WIDA-developed assessment yearly as a measure of ELL students’ level of language proficiency. In this way, while Kentucky does provide districts with the flexibility to select their own program models, the partnership with WIDA provides a specific infrastructure that shapes the types of decisions districts are able to make. Rather than seeing this as an unfair mandate, district leaders reported in C-SAIL interviews that this support allowed them to be able to make more informed and effective decisions for the ELLs in their district.

Texas

Like Ohio and Kentucky, Texas state officials described supporting ELLs as a responsibility primarily of districts. However, the decisions of districts are situated within a robust state infrastructure that guides the types of programming and support district provide to ELLs. At the core of this infrastructure is chapter 89 of the Texas Education Codes, which specifies that school districts with an enrollment of 20 or more ELLs at the same grade level who speak the same language must offer a bilingual education program. Chapter 89 also specifies that all campuses have a Language Proficiency Assessment Committee (LPAC) that is charged with ensuring ELLs are appropriately identified, placed, and monitored in terms of their English language development. None of the district officials we spoke with reported that this specific infrastructure was burdensome. Instead, they felt that it provided them with necessary supports to effectively meet the needs of ELLs.

Commonalities

This analysis of state and district interviews in Ohio, Kentucky, and Texas reveals some notable trends. First, when state officials suggest that ELL education is left to the districts this statement should not be taken at face-value. In fact, all three of the states have made concerted efforts to develop a specific state infrastructure for supporting ELLs. Interestingly, none of the district leaders we spoke with in any of the three states described this infrastructure as burdensome or unfair. Instead, they felt that they provided necessary guidance to districts in supporting the needs of their ELL students. If anything, district leaders wanted more of this type of guidance. Second, it appears that ELL policy is moving in the direction of centralization when the momentum of general education reform is in the direction of decentralization. We plan to continue to examine this phenomenon in the upcoming year of our study.

*Kentucky was a partner state during Years 1 and 2 of the study (July 2015 though August 2017).