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Ending the No Child Left Behind Catch-22 on English learner progress


This commentary was first published on January 9, 2017 by EdSource.

California’s State Board of Education has an opportunity at its meeting this week in Sacramento to leave behind one of the most unfair and problematic features of No Child Left Behind (NCLB): the way it calculates English learners’ progress for purposes of accountability.

In doing so, however, the state will still have some other dilemmas to resolve with respect to how it will focus on, understand, and support the nearly 1.4 million public students classified as English learners.

These decisions, which have given rise to considerable debate, will be critically important in this state with the greatest concentration of English learners in the country (about 23 percent of K-12 public school students) so that it can both credit schools with their successes in moving English learners to proficiency in English and maintain a focus on those long-term English learners who have been left behind. Long-term English learners are students who have been English learners for six or more years, and are not making adequate progress on both learning English and mastering core content.

What’s the problem?

While NCLB established a noble new aspiration – raising achievement while closing achievement gaps among all groups of students – its goals were undermined by accountability requirements for schools to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) that were generally onerous and, in the case of English learners, literally impossible to meet.

With every subgroup of students, including English learners, expected to show annual progress toward 100 percent proficiency by 2014, a Catch-22 was created since the law required that students in the English-learner group who became proficient in English could no longer be counted in the group for accountability purposes.

Thus, the group as a whole could never make progress as its successful members were removed each year. As one study done in California noted, “the more English learners succeed, the worse the group appears to perform over time.”

The perverse effects of this requirement are shown below in the results for a hypothetical school we will call “Middleville,” which reflects a common set of patterns in many California schools.

The school worked hard to create a strong instructional program for English learners and every single one of the students at Middleville made gains on their English language arts (ELA) tests, with an average score increase of 18 points from 2015 to 2016.

However, two students whom we name Rafael and Yrina, met their district’s reclassification criteria, reached the target score of 350 and were reclassified as fluent English proficient. So they were taken out of the calculations for the English learner group. Removing them from the list made it look like the average score for the remaining English learners had declined by 5 points, even though every single student had actually increased their score.

Furthermore, Jessye, an immigrant newcomer who arrived at the school at the end of the 2015 school year, after other English learners had taken the test, took the test in 2016, and got a very low score of only 90. Her score was included in the English learner group’s score in 2016. The inclusion of her low score made it look as though the average score of English learners in the school had declined by 23 points since 2015, as the graph below shows.

LDL EL chart 768x558
A school’s English learner performance can vary significantly based on which students are counted. For more detail, see Table 1 below.

Thus, if California were to keep these old rules, a school that should be applauded for its strong gains for English learners would fall in the “red zone” on the display developed by the state to indicate how a school is doing on a number of measures, including standardized test scores. The red zone is the lowest ranking a school can achieve on the color-coded display, denoting that a school is both low-performing and not improving – even though in Middleville every one of the English learners had improved.

Indeed, under NCLB, the more a school succeeded in moving English learners forward, the more likely it was to show no growth in the English-learner group (since it was moving the strongest students out of the group relatively quickly after they were reclassified).

Since NCLB required 100 percent proficiency for each group and ultimately declared schools as failing when any group failed to show annual progress toward this goal, nearly all of the hundreds of schools so identified in California in the first decade of NCLB were so labelled because they served large numbers of English learners.

This nonsensical set of rules has caused negative consequences for children and schools for many years. Because it is impossible to get an honest picture of a school’s progress when students who show progress are not counted, the rules also made it impossible for schools to know whether to continue on a successful instructional path or shift to an entirely new one.

Worse still, they led to unwarranted sanctions for many schools serving concentrations of English learners, including having to “reconstitute” schools which could involve staff dismissals, closing schools in many low-income communities, and causing the flight of many good teachers from schools labelled as failing.

The rules also created disincentives to reclassify students as English-proficient, since doing so would cause them to depart from the English learner group and potentially trigger sanctions. For some students this could mean they would be prevented from taking college preparatory classes as they were retained in segregated classes for English learners that do not earn A-G credit.

Many educators and scholars documented these perverse outcomes over the last decade and, as a result, the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced NCLB, allows states to count English learners in the English learner group for up to 4 years after they are reclassified, so that the overall progress of English learners in schools and districts is more visible in the accountability system.

This is a sensible, if partial, solution, and one that we jointly worked to achieve when ESSA was under discussion. (Many experts advocate that, for purposes of school accountability, all students who enter U.S. schools as an English learner should be counted in the EL group throughout the time they are in school, including those who have gained English proficiency, so that their gains can be fully measured.)

Adopting this approach will give us a more accurate picture of English learner progress and help us know which schools are pursuing instructional strategies that are working and which are not, thus guiding more productive approaches to improvement. It will also help eliminate some of the disincentives to reclassifying English learners as proficient that are keeping some students from moving forward academically. Finally, according to an analysis by the California Department of Education (CDE), this policy will bring more than 1,200 additional schools into the accountability system for English learners by increasing the number of students being tracked in each school. That’s because more schools will reach the minimum number of 30 students needed to report the results of any subgroup of students.

But this change raises questions about how to ensure that the students who continue in the EL group receive the attention and resources they need, especially if they are long-term English learners who are not making strong progress toward English proficiency and content mastery over many years. Many advocates fear that these students’ needs will be masked by the greater success of some of their peers.

Fortunately, in addition to tracking the performance of all students on mathematics and English Language Arts standardized tests, the new accountability system and the LCAP also look at English learners’ progress toward English language proficiency – tracking progress from one level to the next on California’s English language proficiency test. California calls this its “English Learner Progress Indicator,” and it is a critical addition to the accountability system. Unlike any other indicator, it shines a light squarely on how English learner students are progressing in learning English.

Schools that are not adequately making progress with their English learners’ English language proficiency will fall in the “red zone” on the English Learner Progress Indicator that appears on the dashboard display alongside math and English Language Arts test scores. (State simulations suggest this will add another 700+ schools to the number who would be identified based on the ELA and math tests.) Districts will then need to describe in their Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) how they will target services and funds to these students and the programs that support them. CDE is also currently exploring how data on long term English learners might be incorporated into this measure so that their needs are clearly identified to be addressed by districts.

Finally, the state’s accountability system, reflected in LCAPs, can further leverage ESSA requirements if the Department separately reports the data it maintains on academic performance for English learners, reclassified fluent English proficient (RFEP) students, and long-term English learners on district and school dashboards. The instructions of the LCAP template could prompt districts to address these separately reported data in describing their plans for serving each group, so that none are left behind.

A key to long-term success for the state and its English learners will involve both acknowledging the gains that some are making – along with the kinds of instruction that produces these gains, so that others can learn from them – and identifying those who are not making progress so that their needs can be explicitly addressed.

Table Ending NCLB Catch22
Table 1