The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and English learners

I recently attended a webinar sponsored by TESOL, “An Overview of the Every Student Succeeds Act: What TESOL Educators Need to Know”, which was an overview of the ESSA and the implications for states, schools, and districts that enroll English learner students. The ESSA, signed in December 2015 by President Obama with bipartisan support, greatly decreases the role of the federal government in K-12 education and moves authority and responsibility back to the states and local education agencies. So knowing the implications of the ESSA for ELs in the states is critical.

Every state in the nation has ELs in their schools, and over 70% have EL enrollments of 3% or more. In 2013–14, five of the six states with the highest percentages of EL students in their public schools were in the West. In the District of Columbia and six states—Alaska, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas—10.0 percent or more of public school students were English learners, with California having the highest percentage, at 22.7 percent. Seventeen states had percentages of EL public school enrollment between 6.0 and 9.9 percent. In 13 states, the percentage of EL students in public schools was between 3.0 and 5.9 percent; some of these states, such as Kansas, are experiencing significant increases in their EL population in the last few years and have limited prior experience and resources to serve these students.

The ESSA maintains the focus of NCLB on academic achievement for ELs, with some significant differences:

  • Many previous Title III standards have been migrated to Title I. As part of Title I, states must now adopt English language proficiency standards (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) that align to their academic standards. States must also account for different levels of English proficiency.
  • Title III, the federal statute focused on ELs, will continue to provide robust formula grants to supplement and support EL education. But now each state will determine its own policies, practices, and criteria and procedures for EL entrance and exit (“reclassification”). However, these policies are guided by specific guidelines and requirements, including that any student who might be an EL must be assessed by the state within 30 days of enrollment.
  • There are new EL reporting requirements for states, such as: (1) reporting the number and percentage of ELs meeting academic standards, including four years after students are no longer receiving language services. (2) reporting the number and percentage of ELs that have not reached English proficiency within five years (“long-term ELs”). (3) reporting academic performance data for ELs, long-term ELs, and ELs with disabilities.
  • In addition to annual academic assessment and high school graduation rates, new ESSA state accountability indicators include English language proficiency, measures of student growth, and one additional measure of school quality/student success. School ratings will be based on all five indicators for each subgroup.
  • The role and impact of dual language/bilingual education is largely absent from ESSA. Title III provides some non-regulatory guidance for this, but it’s toothless.

By the way, the ESSA legislation uses “English learner, EL” as their official term (not English language learner, ELL), and defines ELs as “students whose English language proficiency affects their ability to meet state academic standards.” I still prefer emergent bilingual.

In summary, the webinar was packed with information, which TESOL has put into a detailed new ESSA Resource Kit.

It’s incumbent on all of us who are EL professionals to meaningfully engage with state-level education people responsible for meeting ESSA EL requirements, to share our ideas, data, research, and opinions. We all need to work together to ensure the academic success of the ELs in every state nationwide.

Lise Ragan