UC Davis

Tricky task: Setting standards for English language learners

By From page A3 | May 03, 2013

Arriving at a national definition of “English language learner” is a formidable task, best undertaken in a years-long process, a UC Davis expert argued Tuesday at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Francisco.

According to Jamal Abedi, a professor of education who focuses on educational and psychological assessments, states use such a wide variety of criteria to evaluate English learners that devising common standards is complex.

He presented his paper, “Toward a Common Definition of English Language Learners: Issues and Options,” at the conference.

Federal law requires states to annually assess English learners in four areas — reading, writing, listening and speaking. States are also required to monitor these students’ progress in attaining language proficiency.

“However, an English language learner student who is classified as ‘basic,’ ‘intermediate,’ ‘advanced’ or ‘English proficient’ in one state may not be similarly classified in another state,” Abedi said.

Standards even vary from school district to school district, he said.

As a key policy motivation, the U.S. Department of Education is encouraging states participating in either of the two “Race to the Top” assessment consortia to establish a common definition of English learner.

“Race to the Top” is a federal program that began three years ago and offers grants to schools that undertake significant educational reforms.

Abedi said one reason for variation among districts and states is that listening and speaking skills, for example, usually come faster than writing and reading skills. If states weigh or score these skills differently, definitions of “proficient” also will vary.

“The complex policy and technical issues involved in developing a common English learner definition are going to require a well-defined road map of processes and decisions for all consortia members to enact over time,” Abedi said.

“States and the consortia to which they belong should plan now for this process.”

The paper is co-authored by Robert Linquanti, project director for English Learner Evaluation and Accountability Support and senior researcher for the California Comprehensive Center at WestEd, a nonprofit research and development agency based in Sacramento.

— UC Davis News Service

Karen Nikos

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