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Effort on Moving toward a Common Definition of English Learners

English Learners (ELs)—language-minority students whose English proficiency affects their ability to meaningfully participate and succeed in school—are expected to reach 25% of the total U.S. K-12 public school population by the year 2025. Yet how states and school districts define this population varies widely, creating inconsistent and possibly inequitable services for students who move across state or even district boundaries.

States participating in any of four federally-funded assessment consortia (i.e., PARCC, Smarter Balanced, WIDA, and ELPA21) have agreed to a U.S. Department of Education stipulation to establish a “common definition of English Learner” within their consortia. Fulfilling this common definition requirement is neither simple nor straightforward because individual states vary in their policies, tools, and practices for determining which students are ELs, what specialized services they receive, and what criteria and processes are used to exit them from this status. Additionally, federal and state statutes, case law, and regulations influence requirements for K–12 public schools educators. These requirements call for a carefully coordinated, multiyear effort within and across consortia member states. Such an effort needs to proceed in stages and encompass several critical decisions informed by student performance outcomes on new assessments.

The challenge of moving toward a more consistent definition of English learner requires a multi-staged, multiyear, deliberative process. States and consortia are actively engaging in this process, and CCSSO is actively collaborating with them to develop guidance and supportive tools to assist them in more clearly defining an English learner. CCSSO has published the following reports and guidance to assist states and districts:

This publication compiles the related guidance and working papers published by CCSSO from 2013 to 2015. It defines key issues and provides guidance that assessment consortium member states can use to move toward establishing a more consistent EL definition in ways that are theoretically sound, evidence based, empirically informed, pragmatic, and sensitive to many technical, legal, and policy issues. This work is also of value to states not in an assessment consortium that wish to strengthen EL definitional policies and practices within their states, as well as to foster equitability of services and comparability of outcomes for ELs across school districts within their states.

Additionally, CCSSO will be hosting a series of webinars throughout October and November in an effort to enhance state and district knowledge of critical issues and best practices that can be utilized to create a more consistent definition of ELLs within and across states.