What does ESSA mean for ELLs?

Nelson Flores
Thursday, August 4, 2016


Dr. Wayne Wright from Purdue University recently released a helpful overview of the implications of the Every Student Succeeds Act for English Language Learners. As he noted, the rule-making process is still underway and many details are still to be determined. Nevertheless, he describes several significant implications of the new law for the education of ELLs.

The overall framework of NCLB remains intact. This includes assessments in ELA and Math in grades 3-8 and once in high school along with assessments in science once in elementary, middle and high school. However, ESSA offers states more flexibility in creating the accountability system that they will use to evaluate school and district performance while offering some guidelines that states must follow. Of particular significance for the education of ELLs is that the state accountability system must include English language proficiency scores of ELLs. This means that schools and districts will now be held accountable for the growth of the English language proficiency of ELLs as part of their general accountability system, as opposed to being included as a separate evaluation as had been the case under NCLB.

ESSA also offers states more flexibility in how they include ELLs in their general assessment program. Whereas under NCLB the test scores of ELLs had to be included within state accountability systems after one year of arrival to the U.S., ESSA now offers a three-year option that states can also adopt. In the first year, the test scores of ELLs must be reported to the state but will not count toward accountability. In the second year, the test scores of ELLs must be incorporated into accountability using some type of growth measure. In the third year, the test scores of ELLs will be included in accountability in the same way as the rest of the student population. Though this is certainly an improvement over the one-year rule mandated under NCLB, which had no empirical basis, it often takes ELLs more than three years to meet grade-level standards suggesting that schools with large numbers of ELLs will continue to be penalized even if they are making steady gains with their ELLs.

The ELL subgroup will, by definition, always fail to meet grade-level standards

Another change the new ESSA accountability system seeks to address is the fact that unlike other subgroups such as race and ethnicity, the ELL subgroup is a constantly moving target. Once ELLs meet grade-level standards they are re-designated as fully English proficient. These students will be replaced in the ELL subgroup by newcomers who often speak little to no English. Because of this, the ELL subgroup will, by definition, always fail to meet grade-level standards. As a way of addressing this policy paradox, ESSA has extended the amount of time that former ELLs can count as part of the ELL subgroup from two years, as was the case under NCLB, to four years. Hopefully, this will allow states, districts and schools to get a better sense of how successful they are in meetings the needs of ELLs without giving them a false sense of accomplishment that overlooks the challenges of students who continue to be classified as ELLs.

At the core of ESSA is a push for more flexibility for states. On one level, this is a good thing in that it opens up the possibility for innovative programs to meet the needs of ELLs that are responsive to the unique needs of particular states and districts. Yet, there is a fine line between flexibility and a free-for-all. Particularly concerning in this regard is the failure of ESSA to take a stand promoting bilingualism. Research has continued to demonstrate the benefits of bilingualism and the effectiveness of bilingual education for both ELLs and non-ELLs. Yet, NCLB’s high-stakes testing regime has pushed many districts and schools to move away from bilingual education toward English-Only models. This shift was been driven both by a number of factors including pressures for students to perform well on assessments in English and the lack of expertise that many district and school leaders have related to the education of ELLs. Therefore, a push for even more flexibility may risk further undermining the education of ELLs.

C-SAIL hopes to better understand how local actors harness ESSA's new flexibility to improve the education of ELLs.

One of the questions that C-SAIL hopes to study over the next few years are the ways that states, districts and schools negotiate the new flexibility offered by the ESSA accountability system and the impact that this new flexibility has on the education of ELLs. We hope to better understand how local actors harness this new flexibility to improve the education of ELLs as well as the challenges they confront in using this new flexibility to meet the needs of ELLs.