4 ways ESSA will change how schools serve ELL students

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first passed in 1965, is at its heart a piece of civil rights legislation. Its whole purpose is to provide federal funds to states and districts to overcome disadvantages faced by students who have traditionally fallen through the cracks or been intentionally ignored.

In the latest rewrite of the law, which turned No Child Left Behind into Every Student Succeeds, there are some key provisions that shift the way schools will have to identify, serve, test and report information about students who do not speak English.

In four categories in particular, schools will have to make significant changes.

Classifying English learners

The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to create a uniform process for identifying English learners, assigning them services, and, later, moving them out of EL classes and into general education. Under No Child Left Behind, districts made their own processes, which resulted in a wide variety of criteria for entering and exiting English learner services across districts. The new law creates a level of consistency  at least at the state level, if not nationally.

This is one of the many areas in which state education departments will have to create new systems. School and district officials should be participating in comment periods and listening tours to impact their final state regulations.

Standardized testing

A major victory of No Child Left Behind for the civil rights community was its requirement for every student to be tested every year from third grade through eighth grade and once more in high school. Because NCLB said 95% of students must take the test for the results to be valid, schools could not ignore disadvantaged student populations to focus on easier-to-teach or higher-achieving students.

When it comes to English learners, the testing provisions are controversial. Civil rights groups do not want these students to be ignored, but they also do not want them or their schools to be punished when these students do poorly on a test in English if they don’t speak the language.

Delia Pompa, senior fellow for education policy at the Migration Policy Institute, says ESSA frees districts from counting the pass rates of newly arrived immigrant students who don’t speak English in their accountability frameworks. Instead, districts can use growth as a measure of academic progress for accountability purposes for students’ first two years in the country. By year three, however, immigrant students must be assessed the same way as their peers.

No Child Left Behind-era regulations allowed schools to exempt some students, but ESSA codified that ability into law. And offering the option of measuring growth gives schools an incentive to assess students their first year and at least collect data that provides a basis for measuring future progress.

English proficiency

A major change in ESSA comes with its expectations for English proficiency among the English learner population. While this piece didn’t get much attention during negotiations for ESSA, it could require significantly better services for students who do not speak English.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools were held accountable for helping their students improve English proficiency under Title III, which provides money to better support English learner students specifically. Under ESSA, schools must build English proficiency rates into their accountability framework for Title I, which provides money to support low-income students more broadly.

“Title I means English proficiency will get a higher profile and it’s also tied to a bigger pot of funding,” said Brenda Calderón, an education policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza. “We hope this drives an incentive to make sure English learners are making progress.”

Current English learners will be grouped together with former ELs who are as many as four years out of their programs under new ESSA reporting requirements. But while this concerns advocates for its potential to mask the actual performance of current English learners, the English proficiency requirements will clearly show how this smaller population is doing.


ESSA brings with it a raft of reporting changes for schools, districts and states, some of them extreme. One area that could impact services for English learners comes with a reinforced emphasis on subgroup accountability. The idea of subgroup accountability means schools and districts are responsible for helping every student succeed, whether they are white, black, brown, rich, poor or disabled.

Under ESSA, a school cannot get a high rating if one of its subgroups is failing across the board. In fact, if English learners are consistently not doing well in a school, that school will be flagged for targeted improvement and administrators will have to outline a plan for improving outcomes, even if the rest of the school is high-performing.

“That’s a huge civil rights priority that made it into the law,” Calderón said. Still, each state will set its own bar for what consistently underperforming means for a given subgroup.

Pompa, from the Migration Policy Institute, points to two other wins.

First, the English learner subgroup will be further disaggregated so the outcomes of English learner students with disabilities are separated from the English learner population as a whole.

And second, schools will be required to report the number of long-term English learners who continue to receive services for more than five years. Pompa says this could help educators understand the effectiveness of different instructional models for English learners, and other advocates have called it a “name and shame” provision that will incentivize schools to serve these students rather than letting them languish in programs that limit their access to high-level academic content.