Lack Of National Uniformity In ELL Instruction A Challenge

November 22, 2013

Jude Joffe-Block
Carrie Moline's fifth grade classroom at Sunset Elementary School in Glendale, Ariz. includes students who are English learners.

PHOENIX – It’s time for social studies in a fifth grade classroom in Glendale. Among the students following the lesson about the American colonies is Karen Beltran.

She’s a 10-year-old with a perpetual smile.

When Beltran first entered public education in Arizona about five years ago, she didn’t speak much English.

“It felt really scary, I was like shocked,” Beltran said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Yeah, it was really weird learning English because I mostly speak Spanish at home.”

Things have improved since then.

“I feel OK with the English, it's not bad,” she said with a laugh.

A student like Beltran reveals how tricky it is to define who is an English Language Learner. To what point should students like her receive additional help in English, and when should they be reclassified into mainstream curriculum?

In Arizona these kinds of issues are so controversial they have triggered lawsuits, voter propositions, and federal civil rights investigations. And every state uses different tests and criteria to make those decisions, and uses a variety of definitions to track the cohort.

“An English learner as defined in one state, is very likely to be different than an English learner defined in another state,” said Robert Linquanti, an expert at evaluating English learners at West Ed, an education research institute in California.

“So if a given student who is considered an English learner in Arizona were to be moved to California, they might not be considered an English learner, or visa versa," Linquanti said.

And that’s a problem.

Currently, states are trying to find more common ground in curriculum and testing through the initiative known as the Common Core. That will allow for better comparisons across states, and data that show what’s working.

Education experts say as part of that, states must agree on a unified definition of who is English Language Learner.

Otherwise, Linquanti said, “We could be very well be comparing apples to oranges based on the definition of English learner that we use.”

That issue was evident last year when the U.S. Department of Education released preliminary 2010 high school graduation rates across states. At first it appeared that Arizona’s “Limited English Proficient” graduation rate of 25 was the lowest in the country, when in fact, the data could not be compared because each state had defined the cohort differently.

Some states included students who spent one year of high school classified as English learners, while Arizona only counted students who were classified that way during their final year.

But it will be challenge to get states to agree on a standard definition.

“There is just simply not going to be a process by which an external entity establishes pro forma a standard in Arizona,” said John Huppenthal, Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction. “It’s not going to happen.”

Huppenthal said he is eager for the ability to compare Arizona’s program to other states, but he is convinced that states can each keep their own local definitions of English learners and statisticians can account for discrepancies.

And he says there’s another reason he is reluctant to make changes to the way Arizona handles English learners.

“We have a lot of confidence in how we have built our English Language Learner system,” Huppenthal said. “We have a lot of confidence in our test measurement, we have a lot of confidence in the standards that we put in place.”

Huppenthal likes to point out that English learners in Arizona transition to mainstream curriculum programs faster than students in other states.

But critics say that’s because in the past Arizona’s test was too easy. The federal government even forced the state to make changes as a result last year.

Sal Gabaldon, a Language Acquisition Specialist for the Tucson Unified School District, says all this reveals a fundamental problem.

“A lot of the decisions that are made about English acquisition are made from a political perspective rather than a pedagogical perspective,” Gabaldon said.

Gabaldon has often been frustrated with state-mandated policies for English Language Learners. He says reforms that would allow Arizona to truly compare its results with other states would be welcome.

“We are kinda in a bubble I guess is the way to put it,” Gabaldon said. “We look within and congratulate ourselves without having any kind of a measuring stick that validly could compare what we are doing to what other states are doing.”

Still, it will likely take years for states to agree on a standard way to define English learners, whether or not Arizona chooses to participate.