• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2012 • 

In 2012, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) released its national study conducted for the U.S. Department of Education regarding Title III education of English learners (ELs) (Tanenbaum, et al., 2012). The study described the progress in Title III implementation across states, examined programs and services that localities have in place to serve EL students and how they relate to state policies, and focused on the diversity of EL students (concentrations, languages, ages and length of residence in the United States) and the educational implications of this diversity.

Findings show that the numbers of EL students are increasing in all parts of the country. The EL population has grown by 18 percent in the five-year span from 2002-03 to 2007-08, from 3.7 million to 4.4 million. This growth in enrollment is evident not only in states that have historically educated language-minority students – California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Texas – but also in many states where EL students are emerging as a new, fast-growing student sub-population – Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, among others.

The rapid growth in EL enrollment in many areas is of particular significance because it presents new challenges for states and communities that have limited experience in serving EL students and must now address a broad range of complex issues quickly and in a large scale (IDRA, 2009).

EL Student Identification Practices

According to the study, initial student identification procedures are similar in states around the country. For example, it was noted that in 45 states the EL identification process typically begins with a home language survey followed by an assessment of English proficiency. A new finding uncovered by this study though is that only eight states have “established consistent statewide criteria for identifying ELs, while the remaining 42 states provide districts [varying] discretion in making identification decisions.”

In most states, the home language survey is used to identify students to be administered some assessment of English proficiency. Though a common practice, the study found great variation in what constitutes a home language survey. The comprehensiveness of the surveys varies extensively, with some requesting as few as two questions, while others have as many as 10 questions. The authors report that in the majority of states (33 and D.C.), the home language survey includes between two and five questions. The survey is important in that most states use it as the basis for determining which students will be administered the more comprehensive English proficiency measure. This notable variance in initial language screening procedures may well account for extensive ranges in the number of prospective EL students who may be (or not be) identified in a school district or in specific states.

IDRA’s extensive experience in working with schools serving EL students confirms there is tremendous fluctuation in expertise required to accurately identify an EL student, resulting in notable under-identification of students as non-English proficient.

EL Assessment Practices

The 2012 AIR report also found that language proficiency assessments vary extensively from state to state. According to the study, “All states require use of some assessment of English proficiency, with 26 states and D.C. requiring use of a state-mandated specific assessments, including seven states requiring use of a state-developed assessment (Arizona, Idaho, California, Kansas, Michigan, New York, Washington), six states requiring districts to use certain state-approved assessments, and the remaining 18 states allowing districts to choose their own assessment.”

Major non-state-developed measures used in states include the WIDA Consortium assessment, the LAS Links Family, IPT Family, Woodcock-Munoz Language Survey, and Comprehensive English Language Learning Assessment (CELLA).

The extensive variation in EL identification (and exiting) procedures suggests a need for examining this vital area at the national level and providing more standardized procedures to ensure consistency in policy and practice. Absent some uniformity, EL student populations are subject to the whims and political leanings of state political leaders who may have limited interest in identifying – and thus being required by law – to provide specialized educational services to EL students residing in their communities. Since federal involvement in the EL area, both in legal and political realms, dates back nearly five decades, such national standardization in EL identification policies and procedures is long-overdue.

The authors found extensive variation in the degree of state direction on what information must be gathered and how much additional input may be considered in making determination on an EL student’s level of English proficiency. For example “24 states allow districts to use criteria in addition to English proficiency assessment for identifying ELs, with criteria ranging from teacher judgment to parental input” – though all 50 states require English language proficiency to be one of the criteria.

EL Student Exiting Practices

Those familiar with EL program issues recognize that decisions on when EL students are ready to be re-classified as English proficient and thus should be exited from special programs are not simple ones. In the AIR report, the authors explain the opposing tension of a desire for simplicity and transparency in the making of EL exiting decisions and recognition of the complexity and “the individual nature of language acquisition and content learning process.” This dichotomy is reflected in the fact that 14 states and District of Columbia require that exit decisions be made solely on the basis of EL students’ performance on an English language proficiency test, while the remaining 36 states allow or require districts to use multiple criteria.

Tension between district and state level prerogatives related to EL programs also are reflected in the amount of discretion provided to districts in making EL exiting decisions. According to the study, 32 states allow local district discretion in exiting students from the EL sub-groups.

The decisions on when to exit EL students from specialized services are critical ones. Premature exiting of ELs can result in chronic student under-achievement when they subsequently participate in the regular instructional program with no specialized language related support.

The authors correctly note that exiting decisions must be grounded in the “recognition of the complexity” and “the individual nature of language acquisition and content learning process.” Exiting EL students from specialized support programs would benefit from some degree of standardization across states, provided that such policies and procedures are premised on the understanding that such decisions require the consideration of multiple factors that, taken together, offer evidence that the student is ready to make a successful transition into the all-English school curriculum.

This latest report suggests that there is extensive need for greater standardization of EL student identification and assessment. Whether states will be receptive may rely in part on how much they feel a need to continue to receive the limited Title III funding provided by the U.S. Department of Education. Related EL funding research conducted by IDRA indicates that state support varies greatly from state to state, thus incentives for effective identification of EL students also may vary widely at state and local levels.

In their conclusions, the authors note, correctly, that this extensive variation in the procedures used to identify ELs means that “a student who is identified as an EL according to one district’s practices may or may not be identified as such according to another district’s practices (even within the same state), raising implications for state and local EL funding levels, accountability and service delivery for this sub-population.” If federal funding is to have greater impact in improving services to EL students, some degree of similarity across states seems essential to ensure that funding is targeted to those states and students most in need.


Cortez, A. & A. Villarreal. Education of English Language Learners in U.S. and Texas Schools – Where We Are, What We Have Learned and Where We Need to Go from Here – A 2009 Update (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2009).

Kohler, A.D., & M. Lazarin. “Hispanic Education in the United States,” NCLR Statistical brief (Washington, D.C. National Council of La Raza, 2007).

National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition. The Growing Numbers of Limited English proficient Students, poster (Washington D.C.: NCELA, 2007).

Tanenbaum, C., & A. Boyle, K. Soga, K. Carlson Le Floch, L. Golden, M. Petroccia, M. Toplitz, J. Taylor, J. O’Day. National Evaluation of Title III Implementation – Report on State and Local Implementation (Washington, D.C.: American Institutes for Research, 2012).

Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is director of policy at IDRA. Comments and question may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2012, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2012 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]