If a U.S. student learning English were to drive across the country, he would find that in some states he would be classified an “English-language learner,” eligible to receive extra support. In other states, the same student would not qualify for the special designation—or the additional help.
In California, for example, English-language learners spend part of the day focused on learning English. The rest of the day, teachers help them learn the same material as native English speakers, with some modifications. For example, they might be divided into smaller groups with other limited English speakers, or receive a preview or review of the lesson in their native tongue.
The label matters, because under the federal Civil Rights Act, schools are required to provide English-language learners with additional services to ensure they master English as well as the material other students are learning.
The wide variety in policies also creates headaches for students who move from state to state, or even from one school district to another, as they may suddenly find themselves lumped into a new category.
Now that nearly all the states have agreed to adopt common standards in English and math, known as the Common Core State Standards, some states are striving for a common definition of an English-language learner. The task likely will take years, given the political and policy thickets that need to be cleared.
A common definition would help English learners to receive better educations, said Robert Linquanti, project director for English Learner Evaluation and Accountability Support at WestEd, a nonprofit education research organization based in California, and one of two co-authors of a recent report.
“If I’m a parent with a kid who’s been designated [an English learner], I want to know that the educators at the school have enough understanding about where my kid’s language proficiency is and where they’re aiming to have my child go,” Linquanti said. “If we have varying definitions…it’s much less likely my students will get a coherent set of services.”
California, which has about 1,000 school districts, has “1,000 different definitions of what’s an English learner,” Linquanti said. “A kid could be an English learner in one district, cross the road into another and be considered not an English learner. It has an effect on the quality of instruction a kid can receive.”
From the school years 2002-03 to 2009-10, the number of limited English proficient students in K-12 nationwide grew by 7 percent, to 4.65 million. California has the highest percentage of English-language learners with 23 percent of enrollment in public schools in 2010-11.
Among those prodding the states to agree on a definition is the federal government, which gives money to the states to help English learners but struggles to evaluate how well states are using it.
The U.S. Department of Education’s latest biennial report to Congress on Title III funding to states for English learners cautions, “Each state has its own standards, assessments, and criteria for ‘proficiency,’ for both English proficiency and academic content proficiency, as well as its own identification and exit criteria for English proficiency. Thus, the same child could be designated ‘proficient’ in English or in mathematics in one State, but not in another.”
The federal government cannot force the states to agree to a common definition of English learners, but it has created financial incentives for states to do so.