New ways to bring English learner success into focus

More than 1.3 million California public school students are English learners. Some are new arrivals to the United States, others have attended American schools for years. Both groups, though, share the challenge of learning English through an unfamiliar language — English. Teachers and administrators are charged with the important role of guiding this student group to English language proficiency while also ensuring they graduate from high school ready for college and career. The lack of reliable data used to track the progress of this student group makes it difficult to get a clear picture of how ELs are doing in the public school system.

“Many education leaders have only a fuzzy idea of what excellence for ELs looks like,” said Janie T. Carnock, an education policy analyst with the think tank New America.

In a new report, “Seeing Clearly: Five Lenses to Bring English Learner Data into Focus,” Carnock developed a “framework of five corrective lenses” to more accurately evaluate students learning English. The paper aims to expose data challenges and recommends ways to improve the collection, use and interpretation of EL data. The approach involves understanding the five key lenses through which to view English learners, and suggests data-gathering solutions to focus on for each lens as follows.

Five Key Lenses

  1. The English learner subgroup is not static:
    EL status is a temporary designation where students leave the category once they have achieved English language proficiency, while others constantly enter into the designation. This causes an academic gap to always appear. Solution: Report all EL outcomes disaggregated by former and current ELs. Create an “ever-EL” group to track the entire group of current and former ELs over their K-12 years.
  2. Learning a language takes time: It is unrealistic to set a one-size-fits-all language acquisition time frame. Solution: Do not be in a rush to reclassify ELs. Monitor and report on ELs who have not exited after five to seven years, the amount of time it takes to gain full academic proficiency in another language.
  3. English learners progress at different ratesSolution: Use growth models that account for ELP and grade of entry.
  4. English skills impact overall academic performanceSolution: In general, use academic achievement data with extreme caution. Emphasize
    academic growth models for current ELs. Set different academic targets based on ELP level.
  5. Poverty affects many learners of English and their classroom success: Without consideration of how poverty impacts the EL population, interpretations of EL data may misdiagnose root causes. Solution: Report income-level data alongside outcomes data to bring awareness to
    the realities of school and district needs.

Carnock argues that broadening understanding of the challenges faced by EL students will lead to more accurate assessments. “Data can be used in ways that misleadingly present ELs as a group that never shows progress or success — which is not true,” she said.

Her work includes a case study from Oregon, in which education leaders allowed for broader data comparisons among English learner subgroups. This lead to the finding that graduation rates of 12th-graders who were former English learners were virtually the same as native English speakers. California, too, has pioneered changes. In 2012, the state passed a law that set standards for defining and reporting on English learners.

Looking ahead, Carnock stresses applying the five lens criteria to ongoing policy reforms, especially when setting goals and plans for meeting them under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.


English Learners — CSBA

Dual Language Learners — New America

English Learners — California Department of Education