What Will ESSA Mean for English Learners?

This is the first in a series of posts about ESSA’s implications for student subgroups. 

Over the past few decades, English learners (ELs) have become an increasingly significant student population, outpacing the demographic growth of non-EL students by more than 40 percent nationwide and growing by as much as 800 percent in some states.

These students make up a critical resource in our increasingly global economy and society, but their rich potential has historically been underdeveloped. ELs tend to fare worse than their non-EL peers academically when assessed in English, and their graduation rates are lower. This situation is especially serious given that schools have Civil Rights obligations to ELs, including the well-established right to "appropriate language assistance services to become proficient in English and to participate equally in the standard instructional program within a reasonable period of time."

The 2015 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), does take some important steps:

  • It’s easier to track EL progress now that statewide entrance and exit procedures for EL services are standardized throughout the state.
  • EL student monitoring has been improved. For example, states can now include reclassified English learners in the EL subgroup for four years—not just two, as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act specified.

But making ESSA work for ELs entails some challenges too:

  • States will have more responsibility for establishing their own accountability systems. Delia Pompa, a well-regarded advocate, points out, “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 will be important to ensure that gains in federal law are not lost in state accountability systems.”
  • ESSA is more explicit about teacher preparation, stressing the importance of preparing all teachers to educate English learners. However, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) reports that ESSA’s new provisions for teacher professional development don’t go far enough to expand the knowledge of current or preservice EL teachers. Also there are no proposals to create more bilingual or ESL specialists.

A closer look:

Assessment and Accountability. ESSA’s Title III requires states to implement standardized, statewide procedures for identifying ELs (“entrance procedures”) and for determining when special language services are no longer needed (“reclassification procedures”). States must also disaggregate English learners with a disability from English learners without disabilities. Both measures are critical for monitoring EL progress.

To ensure ongoing monitoring of EL progress, Title I now requires annual English language proficiency assessments. And each state must set up an accountability system that incorporates at least four academic indicators (including English language proficiency) and one non-academic indicator (such as student engagement, educator engagement, access to and completion of advanced coursework, or school climate).

ESSA also provides states with two options for recently arrived English learners:

  • Exempt them from one round of the reading or English language arts assessment, and let states wait until these students have been enrolled in a U.S. school for one year before assessing their test results and incorporating them into the state accountability system.
  • Assess recently arrived ELs, but during their first year in a U.S. school exclude the results from the state accountability system, instead measuring student growth in the second year and proficiency on academic assessments beginning in the third year.

States’ new accountability systems must be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. Plans will be peer-reviewed, and those reviews will be made public. A state can request a hearing if its plan is rejected.

Another big change: Annual yearly progress (AYP) targets are gone. Instead, states will set their own goals for language proficiency for English learners and for other indicators required for all students, such as proficiency in reading and math and graduation rates.

Finally, extending EL monitoring to four years yield more accurate information about English learners’ performance and progress over time, enhancing program evaluation and improvement. The extension also recognizes the developmental nature of second language acquisition, allowing for better service delivery to students at all levels of English proficiency.

Teacher Development. “Highly qualified” teachers is no longer a part of ESSA. Instead, state plans under ESSA must describe how low-income and minority children in Title I schools are “not served at disproportionate rates by ineffective, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers.”  Title II of ESSA makes expectations of EL teacher development plans and programs more explicit but says nothing about preparing new specialists for the job ahead—a major oversight given the federal requirement that instructional programs for ELs be staffed by teachers with expertise in EL pedagogy.

Resources for Instruction. Under ESSA, Title III funding authorization levels rise by approximately $60 million, providing resources to states and school districts to establish, implement, and sustain high-quality instruction designed to ensure that English learners, including immigrant children and youth, develop both English language proficiency and content proficiency in math and English. ESSA singles out school districts with ineffective language education instruction for special support.

As the student subpopulation of English learners grows, supporting their mastery of language and new content becomes increasingly important. The new latitude and responsibility that ESSA gives to states makes local and state monitoring of both implementation and student outcomes more important than ever, too.

Diane August is an AIR Managing Researcher specializing in policy, research and technical assistance in the education of pre-school and school age second-language learners.

Erin Haynes is a senior researcher specializing in minority language acquisition.

Additional resources on ESSA and EL are available from the Migration Policy Institute and TESOL.