Test change for ELL students raises funding, accountability concerns for systems

Russellville schools had more than 400 English Language Learners last school year — students who come to the district speaking little to no English and receive federally mandated services in order to become fluent.

In recent years, about 100 students annually test out of those ELL services that are costly for the district, said Superintendent Heath Grimes.

But last year, zero students passed the test. Nothing had changed with them or their educations. But the test – given to students in about 30 states — and how it is graded changed and became more difficult to pass.

Now, superintendents like Grimes are bracing for larger ELL classes in the upcoming school year – and figuring out how to pay for them.

“The majority of the cost to educate ELL students comes from the local district,” said Grimes.

Russellville is not alone.

“This is a really big issue for about 20 school systems that have large or rapidly growing ELL populations,” said Eric Mackey, of the state’s superintendents’ association. Many of the systems with those large populations are in north Alabama. He included Decatur and Athens on the list.

Alabama and other impacted states belong to the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment consortium, and use a test it designed to assess students’ English proficiency.

The publication, Education Week, this month reported that a scoring adjustment to the test known as ACCESS 2.0 raises the bar for English-language proficiency. With the change, English-learners must demonstrate more sophisticated language skills in four domains—listening, speaking, reading and writing—to achieve the same proficiency-level scores.

School district administrators expected a decrease in students passing the test, but some have been surprised by the numbers.

There is federal and state funding for ELL. State dollars are allocated on a per-student basis, based on the previous year’s enrollment.

Russellville will receive $86,000 in federal funding for ELL in the coming school year and $47,000 in state funding, a slight decrease from last year. It works out to a combined $325 per student. Not nearly enough, said Grimes.

The system has hired additional teachers next year to accommodate the expanded ELL enrollment.

Decatur schools had 740 ELL students last year – and only 14 tested out.

“I think it’s important that we provide services for every child as long as there is a need,” Decatur schools special services director Stefanie Underwood said. “But funding for federal mandates across the board is a concern.”

Last year, the system received $114,099 in federal funding, and a decrease is expected next year. State and local funding totaled almost $909,000.

“We definitely think (our ELL population is going to increase because of the test change), which means more teachers are needed, yet our federal funding has been decreased,” Underwood said.

The state allocation for ELL has increased by almost $1 million in the last 10 years to nearly $3 million. Last year, there were 20,183 ELL students statewide, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.

“It’s a need around the state, and certain pockets are challenged with higher than normal immigrant populations,” said Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, chairman of the Senate education budget committee. “Hopefully it will help the systems as they try to bring these students up to speed as far as language.”

Like Underwood, he wishes there was more federal funding.

Financial impact aside, Grimes said he’s glad students aren’t testing out of ELL too soon.

“I think it’s positive in that we’re saying these kids are not ready and need more services,” Grimes said.

His system also has a vested interest in their proficiency.

Non-English speakers still have to take standardized math tests in their first year – despite the test being written in English. They get a one-year reprieve on the reading test, then have to take it whether they’re in ELL or not. Their scores, combined with other students’, are used in a variety of ways to judge systems and compare them to others.

“We’ve been screaming from the mountain top that not everyone has to deal with this and it drastically affects our scores,” Grimes said. A system is not going to do well when a significant percentage of its population can’t comprehend the test, he said.

Education Week also reported that in the coming school year, the performance of English-language learners will have a much greater impact on how schools are judged under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Mackey and superintendents with large ELL populations plan to meet soon with the state department of education staff. He said they want to make sure the state’s ESSA plan offers as many advantages as possible to ELL students, including a math test in Spanish, which is already offered in some other states.

“We need to make sure the ESSA plan doesn’t tie our hands too much,” he said.

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