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New Education Legislation Includes Important Policies for English Learners, Potential Pitfalls for their Advocates
December 2015

New Education Legislation Includes Important Policies for English Learners, Potential Pitfalls for their Advocates

A Latina youth and group of 3rd graders sitting at a table. The youth is reading a book to the children.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which is on the way to the President’s desk for his signature, includes important policies that recognize the needs and diversity of English Learners (ELs) in an effort to close the ongoing achievement gap between them and other students. The bill, which reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also crucially maintains accountability for how ELs are achieving—a hallmark of the last reauthorization, known as the No Child Left Behind Act.

Given  ESSA’s overall thrust of reducing federal authority in education, however, ensuring that EL needs are met will be complicated by the fact that education agencies in 50 states and the District of Columbia will be interpreting the new mandates and perhaps implementing them differently.

ESSA has many strengths with respect to the nation’s approximately 5 million English learners in K-12 classrooms. (The term English Language Learner, or ELL, has long been used; ESSA uses English Learner, or EL.) The most far-reaching, change requires that states include English language proficiency in their accountability frameworks under Title I, the provision that governs accountability for all students. Previously, accountability for growth in language proficiency was limited to Title III, which provides resources to ELs. The change gives ELs a higher profile in accountability systems and reflects their growing importance in overall student achievement because of their increasing numbers. Placing ELs in the law’s primary achievement and accountability framework will be of obvious and particular importance for states and districts with the largest concentrations of EL students, such as California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois. The legislation also provides critically needed support for EL services and performance in states with scattered or smaller numbers of EL students, where their central place in  accountability systems should ensure that their outcomes are regularly scrutinized.

In another significant change, states are now required to have a standardized process for classifying students as English learners as well as a standardized statewide process for how ELs exit special services (or how they are reclassified). Up to now, many states have had a hodge-podge of EL entry-and-exit criteria across districts within a state, resulting in inconsistent assessment of needs and provision of services for students. Under ESSA, the entry and exit of ELs from services will be consistent at least within states, thus allowing educators to better serve students with high rates of mobility and making the definition of an English learner consistent across the state.

The legislation also alters the exclusion of ELs from standardized tests. Previously, even though EL students were required to take the math assessment, states could exclude these results (as well as those from the language arts assessment) from their accountability framework during the students’ first year in U.S. schools. ESSA adds a second option:  EL students who are recently arrived would not be required to take the English language arts test, and states would not be required to include ELs’ English language proficiency scores in their accountability system. In the second year states would use a growth measure for reading and math that would be included in their accountability systems. A growth measure indicates the amount of positive change from one year to the next whereas proficiency scores are a measure of a particular point in time. Using a measure of growth allows states greater flexibility in demonstrating the progress ELs are making without having to include actual proficiency scores in their systems of accountability. In the third year and thereafter, assessment scores must be included in the same way as for all other students. 

After much debate, the legislation allows the inclusion of former ELs in the EL subgroup for accountability purposes for up to four years. This change expands the two-year allowance provided for in Department of Education-issued regulations for the last several years. Including former ELs in the EL subgroup allows states and districts to present a more robust picture of how well their EL students are progressing after meeting exit criteria. However, by including former ELs, overall scores for the subgroup will rise and may mask the performance of current ELs. EL advocates are expected to urge states to carefully monitor achievement for current ELs and to address any downward trends in performance as soon as they are noted.

In a nod to growing diversity in the EL population, Title III will now also require states to disaggregate English learners with a disability from the EL subgroup to provide a clearer picture of progress for both groups. This change responds to a growing concern that ELs with a disability very often do not receive adequate services. States are also required to report on the number of ELs who have not attained English proficiency within five years of identification as an English learner. Identifying these long-term English learners could provide educators insights into the effectiveness of instructional programs.

Despite ESSA’s focus on the needs of English learners, there are challenges and potential pitfalls for these students’ advocates. There is no longer a single federal accountability system; there will be more than 50. The federal role in education has been critical to safeguarding the civil and educational rights of English learners, minority students, and those with disabilities, and it is important to ensure that gains in federal law are not lost in state and local accountability plans. That will mean an increased need for broader and deeper dissemination of what research has yielded about EL students. In the absence of strong central direction for accountability plans, it will also mean engaging all groups that have a stake in the success of English learners to ensure robust monitoring of how these students are faring academically.


Delia Pompa is Senior Fellow for Education Policy at the Migration Policy Institute, and has been instrumental in EL education policy issues for many years in her roles in local, state, and federal government, as well as with the Children’s Defense Fund, the National Council of La Raza, and other organizations.