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ESSA and ELLs: 6 Steps Forward

New Commitment to Equity and the Progress of Learning

There are several “best hopes” for the recent reauthorization of the Elementary Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that essentially replaces the much-maligned No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act of 2002 represents unprecedented optimism and opportunity for educators and learners alike. TESOL supports the new provisions that support ELLs, and calls it a major step forward for equity in U.S. education.

1) Multiple Measures of Assessment

For the one in nine learners who are English Language Learners (ELLs), ESSA creates not only a commitment to access and opportunity for learning, growth, and achievement but also a renewed sense of equity of, for, and by the educational experience. Specifically, the monitoring and measuring of the learning progress of ELL students will use multiple measures rather than a standardized test to track improvement and achievement.

2) Increased Accountability

ESSA increases state accountability, responsibility, and authority for the learning progress of ELLs. When implemented, ESSA will require states to expand monitoring and reporting of the learning progress of not just newer ELLs, but for long-term ELLs as well. For newcomers, ESSA will allow states to exclude ELLs from required testing for a short time to reflect the reasonable and necessary time to develop skills and knowledge, and experience their progress and application.

3) Focus on ELLS with Special Needs

Additionally, states will be required to monitor and report the learning progress for ELLs with special needs. Further still, states will be required to include in their monitoring and reporting for ELLs no less than four years of learning progress after ELLs are exited from ESL services.

4) Much Needed Funding

ESSA also represents a continued commitment of federal funding for ELLs. Though further clarification and guidance will come from the U.S. Department of Education, we know there is anticipated flexibility for use of Title I, Title II, and IDEA monies with respect to programming, services, and support for ELLs.

Of the changes represented in ESSA, the shift from a narrowly defined and punitive model of accountability to a focus and commitment to the “progress of learning” represents a significant pivot for teaching and learning—especially for ELLs.

5) Instructional Time Gained

Each state will grapple with defining and determining what accountability looks like for learning progress. Specifically, ESSA provides guidance for the use of multiple measures or evidences of learning and growth. In doing so, states may redirect energy, effort, and resources to evaluating the value proposition, utility, and import of the frequency and number of tests. There should be a significant gain in instructional time, which is currently consumed by the administration of testing. Though annual assessments in reading and math for Grades 3–8, and at the high school level will remain a requirement, states will now have the flexibility to determine how and when these occur.

6) Empowerment of ELLs and their Teachers with EdTech

I posit that it will be the “multiple measures” of learning progress that create a transformation in teaching and learning for ELLs. As new technologies and their adaptive, intelligent analytics create authentic personalized learning, transparent monitoring, and feedback on learning while the learner is learning, ELLs will experience an unprecedented level of engagement, empowerment, and authorship of their learning.

An increasing body of research supports the potential for cognitive, cultural, and economic benefits of bilingualism. There are certainly significant social, psychological, and cognitive benefits to being bilingual: higher test scores, better problem-solving skills, sharper mental acuity, and greater empathy. Good for the individual, good for society.

At DreamBox Learning, we support bilingualism, and our math learning software provides lessons in both English and Spanish. You can learn more here or explore the subject further by reading our white paper, Six Strategies to Close Math Gaps for ELLs.

Dr. Gregory Firn
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