Accountability FOR and TO English Language Learners

Keynote Address

10th Annual Administrators Conference
Sonoma County Office of Education  

Santa Rosa, California   April 4, 2001

Jill Kerper Mora

Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you this morning about a topic of vital interest to all of us as educators at a time of dramatic demographic changes and challenges: Accountability in educating California’s growing numbers of language minority students. The title of my talk this morning is Language, Literacy and Content Learning: Being Accountable FOR and Accountable TO English Language Learners. As you will notice from the title of this keynote address, I define accountability for students who come to our schools speaking a native language other than English is multifaceted and complex. These days the very word “accountability” can send chills up and down the spine or give us a headache. For many educators, and especially for administrators, no doubt the SAT-9 and the API have replaced the Boogey Man and possibly even the IRS as our worst nightmares. And STAR may not be something we wish upon anymore, but rather something we wish would go away. Yet, when we think clearly about our responsibilities as educators both FOR our students and TO our students, we get a much clearer and less threatening picture of how we can utilize the information from standardized testing and other sources of information to improve instruction for English language learners and to advocate for sound and effective policies to support us in this effort.

Let me begin by showing you the complex challenge facing us in educating second-language learners in our public schools. Much of our policy debate over the last few years surrounding passage of Proposition 227 has been on how long it takes to learn English and how quickly we can “exit” or “redesignate” limited English proficient students. As with many laws passed through the ballot initiative process, Proposition 227 has attempted to simplify a complex social issue and homogenize a complex educational process. It has even attempted to change human nature by accelerating the growth curve for human linguistic development. 25% of our students are classified as English language learners, a label that in a way reinforces the erroneous idea that all they need to learn in school is English. Let us look carefully at the complexity of educating English language learners. Currently in California, 38% of our students speak a language other than English in the home. This means that these students are bilingual learners because they are at various stages of learning to speak, read and write in two languages. One out of every three students in our schools is a Spanish/English bilingual learner.

The task that these children face is not only to learn English but also to acquire the literacy skills and the content knowledge taught in our standards-based curriculum. Remember that when a child arrives in kindergarten or first grade, he has five to six years of language development in his native tongue. English language learners are asked to accomplish literacy and content learning sufficient to catch up with their native English speaking peers who begin the process with five to six years of language development. We make the assumption that native English speakers are ready to begin to learn to read and write and to comprehend increasingly more abstract and complex concepts about social studies, science and math based on their foundation in English.

When we talk about accountability, a point of departure for us to acknowledge our responsibilities to our language minority population is federal law. Our obligation to provide equal educational opportunities and effective programs for English language learners are defined by a number of court cases, including the 1974 Lau v. Nichols decision of the Supreme Court. The Lau decision established the principle that language minority students must have equal access to core curriculum of the schools and that appropriate measures must be taken by school districts to overcome any language barriers students have in order to eventually reach “parity of participation” with their native English speaking age mates.

Most recently, in the case of Valeria G. v. Wilson, the federal court denied a petition for an injunction against enforcement of Proposition 227 on July 15, 1998. Judge Charles Legge ruled that the structured immersion program for instructing limited English proficient students was an appropriate means of addressing students’ language barriers. Using other federal court rulings as a guide, the court ruled that school districts could choose between two models for teaching English and giving students access to the curriculum. One approach is the simultaneous teaching of English and the curriculum content through bilingual instruction using students’ primary language. Another approach is a sequential approach, where the school district first provides intensive English instruction to reach parity of participation within a reasonable time, with an interim sacrifice of learning in other subject areas. In the Valeria G. v. Wilson case, the court made it clear that school districts were responsible for providing intensive remedial programs or other instruction to recoup any deficits in learning that may have occurred while students were learning English. In other words, school districts have an obligation to provide programs and instruction designed to ensure that English language learners eventually catch up academically with their native English-speaking peers and close the achievement gap.

Judge Legge ruled that the voters of California had expressed their “policy preference” for the sequential approach to equal access to the curriculum and parity of participation for language minority students. You will not be shocked to hear that I have some problems with Judge Legge’s ruling in the Valeria G. v. Wilson case and with the “policy preference of the majority of California’s electorate. I guess I must be old-fashioned or something, but I always thought that parents’ preferences should have priority in making decisions about the best way to educate their children. Let me explain why I have some difficulties with the sequential approach to access to the core curriculum based on our look at the three-tiered learning task facing English language learners. We can gain a different perspective from an analysis of the entire body of data in the STAR system. When we begin instruction for language minority students by building on the language proficiency and prior knowledge they have acquired in their first language, just as we do with native speakers of English, we are less likely to incur an academic deficit that later must be recouped in the first place. It appears that students throughout the state of California who are being taught to read in their native language and tested in reading in that language are achieving scores that suggest a normal distribution of literacy achievement. We know this by comparing means of the SABE/2 reading scores for Spanish-speaking students who are new arrivals to the United States and students who are in bilingual programs being taught to read in Spanish with the means of disaggregated SAT-9 reading scores for native speakers of English. Mind you, I am not saying necessarily that SABE/2 scores and SAT-9 scores are comparable. However, this information is informative because it demonstrates that our Spanish-speaking population is a “normal” population with a normal distribution of reading achievement when students are tested in a language in which they are proficient. Therefore, we can safely conclude that the achievement gap is most likely due to factors such as language proficiency and its impact on literacy and content learning rather than to any differences between the populations in intellectual ability.

This realization reinforces our legal, and moral, obligation to ask the right accountability questions. The question we must ask is not “How long does it take to learn English?” but rather, “How long does it take to close the achievement gap?” and “What do we have to do to accomplish the task?”

Our accountability system in some ways tells us what we need to know and in other ways, leaves out some of the most important data we need to understand how well we are serving our different student populations. We report test scores for the entire student population, but we also disaggregate our students’ test data into two categories: Scores for native English speakers (NES) and scores for limited English speakers (LEP). We see from looking at the distribution of SAT-9 scores for these two groups that there is a wide gap between the two groups. This comes as no surprise, of course. The LEP group is made up of students who, by definition, are limited in English proficiency as determined by a score of three or below on a 5 point scale on a language assessment instrument, such as the Language Assessment Scales or LAS, the ITP, the Bilingual Syntax Measure, the ITP or the Woodcock-Muñoz, whichever instrument has been selected from among the seven options provided by the state. This language assessment data will now be standardized with all districts using the English Language Development test to measure language proficiency starting in the fall. School districts use other criteria to determine which students are classified as English language learners, including SAT-9 reading scores, writing rubrics and so forth, all designed to give a profile of the students’ abilities to be “mainstreamed” into regular classes along with his native-English speaking peers. Formerly, these students were called Fluent English Proficient, or FEP. Consequently, once a student reaches the redesignation criteria, his test scores are no longer calculated along with the limited English proficient students, but are counted along with the scores for the total population.

In effect, in the statewide reporting system, former English language learners disappear into the aggregate. This is problematic for accountability for several reasons. First of all, it means that we must be very cautious when making inferences about the progress of our English language learners as a group. Many claims are being made about how test scores have risen for limited English proficient students as a result of Proposition 227. What we know is that scores for this population will vary depending on who is redesignated and who is left in the testing pool on a given test day. We do not really know how English language learners are doing academically unless we follow the progress of individual students or stable cohort groups from year to year. Then, we must examine our test data carefully based on a clear understanding of what gains can reasonably be expected for each academic year. We can also monitor the amounts of growth to indicate that our programs are effective in closing the achievement gap.

Here is where we must return to our pyramid of language, literacy and content learning. Keep in mind that while language minority students are learning English, native English speakers are not standing still. They are expected to gain one academic years growth per school year. However, for English language learners to catch up academically they must make greater gains each year. We know from research that to close the achievement gap, second-language learners must make approximately three to five months extra gain in learning each year. In other words, they must achieve 13 to 15 months learning for every 10 months of an academic year in school.

We know from 30 years of research studies and data collection and from practical experience that there is great variability in the rate at which second language learners acquire oral language and literacy skills. We begin literacy instruction based on some key assumptions about students’ level of language development in their native language. This linguistic base is our point of departure for literacy instruction through phonics, which is in reality a system for analyzing spoken language and relating it to the graphic representations known as the alphabetic principle. However, it is very difficult for young readers to begin to analyze a language whose sound system and vocabulary is unfamiliar to them and whose syntax, grammar and meaning they do not yet control. Young second-language learners take time to acquire proficiency in oral English sufficient to tackle the more complex and demanding task of reading English. Their growth in oral English may be quite rapid as they learn to communicate with their teachers and classmates in their school context.

This rapid growth in language skills is what leads to what I call, the “sponge” theory. No doubt you have heard it: Young children soak up English like a sponge. It only takes a year to acquire a “working knowledge” of English. Well, examine for a moment what the “work” of a first or second grader is like and you will see how deceptive their level of oral English skills are be when determining how well they can accomplish more complex linguistics tasks such as reading and writing in English. As children move up through the elementary grades they encounter ever-increasing levels of difficulty in the literacy tasks and content in the curriculum. Many educators who work with language minority populations talk about the “fourth grade slump.” At about fourth grade, the curriculum makes a dramatic shift from simple stories and narratives and simplified writing tasks like retelling and journal writing, to more technical vocabulary in the content areas and reading from textbooks. At just about the point where many second-language learners are beginning to get a handle on English literacy, they are thrown a curve ball. Students who are still struggling with decoding English and making sense out of the more complex language in written texts are then asked to employ more demanding comprehension strategies and study skills to think critically and analyze abstract concepts and unfamiliar content-laden reading materials.

It is in the upper elementary grades where many English language learners begin to loose whatever ground they may have gained in the primary grades while they were learning English and getting a handle on reading and writing. Or alternatively, it is at this crucial point where effective programs begin to pay off for our English language learners when they have had the support they need to develop both the language and literacy skills they need to move on into middle school and high school.

Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier from George Mason University in Washington, D.C. conducted a longitudinal study of 700,000 English language learners in various types of programs in different school districts around the country. They found that certain distinctive patterns of achievement emerged that help us address our accountability question, “How long does it take to close the achievement gap?” Thomas and Collier concluded that it takes a typical student who is schooled through bilingual education who is achieving on grade level in her native language from 4 to 7 years to reach the 50th percentile on Normal Curve Equivalent scale. It takes the typical “advantaged” immigrant student with 2 to 5 years of on-grade-level schooling in their country of origin and native language from 5 to seven years to reach the 50th percentile. But here is the scenario for the majority of our English language learners in California today. The typical young immigrant or U.S. born speaker of a native language other than English who is educated entirely in English as their second language from 7-10 years or more to reach the 50th percentile. However, many of these students never do make it to this level of achievement unless they receive support for academic and cognitive development in their native language either at home or in school.

These data suggest an answer to the question I am often asked by teachers, administrators and graduate students when I talk about public policy for educating language minority students: What about those students who were born in the United States and have been in our public school system all their lives and still are doing so poorly in middle school and high school? When we realize that only by fifth or sixth grade under the best conditions in effective programs will students begin to close the achievement gap, it should come as no great surprise that many English language learners leave elementary school reading at about a fourth grade level. Many can reasonably be expected to enter high school reading at a sixth grade level, even when progressing at a normal rate academically with only slightly more than one academic year’s growth per year of schooling. This has serious implications when we are considering policies such as the High School Exit Exam at a tenth grade reading level as the sole criteria for earning a diploma.

Now, some of you may be saying, doesn’t this mean that we are lowering expectations for our English language learners? There is a vast difference between expectations that are artificially low and expectations that are both high AND realistic. This is where we must think in terms of our accountability TO our English language learners. I know that they would like a simple answer to the question of how we are to be accountable to our language minority population. There are no simple solutions to complex problems.

Again, we can turn to the research data to tell us about what we can do to be accountable for our English language learners. We need a multifaceted approach. First, we must be accountable for designing and implementing our programs based on sound theoretical and research-based models. We provide the human and material resources to support teachers in implementing the model in a coherent and consistent manner over time. Then we monitor and assess the progress of students in those programs to determine both the effectiveness of the program and the sustained academic gains of each student in the three areas of learning: language, literacy and content. Based on assessment data, we make modification and adjustments in our programs to increase their effectiveness and meet the particular academic needs of students. Above all, we are concerned with the many school environment and instructional factors we know from research and from practical experience to be necessary for language minority students’ total intellectual and social development.  Here are some of those factors:

Students need a supportive school-wide environment in which their language and culture are valued. We know that programs based on a philosophy of additive bilingualism and the importance of fostering a positive identity with both the students’ home culture and their acquired American culture produce the best results in academic achievement.

Language minority students also benefit from a customized learning environment with special attention to linguistic factors in students’ academic achievement. We know that students must have opportunities for abundant COMPREHENSIBLE input in order to learn a new language. Teachers must have training in knowing how to modify and focus instruction for students with different levels of language proficiency. This is the essence of the sheltered English immersion approach and for English language development in bilingual programs. In effective programs, teachers integrate and connect language, literacy and content learning through theme-based instruction.

We know that some use of students’ native language is important for their continued cognitive development. Dual language and late exit bilingual programs, for example, focus on developing full bilingualism and biliteracy based on an additive or enrichment philosophy for second language learners. High levels of parental involvement and parental/community support for the program are needed in order to sustain and extend students’ learning in school. This characteristic of effective programs for language minority students reaffirms our responsibility to fully inform parents about the goals and objectives of the programs and to communicate with them on a regular basis about their children’s progress. Parental involvement does not necessarily mean that parents come to participate in school activities, but rather, that parents have the knowledge about what their children are learning in school to guide, support and motivate them in their achievement. We must never assume that because parents don’t speak English that they cannot or should not be highly involved in their children’s schooling.

We must also be accountable by supporting effective instruction. English language learners must have a balanced and clearly articulated curriculum that incorporates both basic and higher-order thinking skills. We must keep in mind the developmental progression of language and literacy skills. In the early stages of acquiring English, students benefit from explicit basic skills instruction with opportunities for practice and use of strategies to enhance understanding. We must be careful not to teach skills in isolation or out of context in ways that decrease students’ opportunities to make meaning from language and from written text. However, students’ learning is enhanced when we help them to discern patterns in language and practice the grammar and syntax of English through self-directed activities in which they increase their abilities to monitor their own oral language development and reading strategies. This high quality of instruction requires the skills of teachers who receive ongoing staff development and the time and resources to plan and development the curriculum collaboratively. Teachers also need the resources and inservice training to base their classroom instruction on systematic student assessment to monitor progress in language and literacy learning and to recommend adjustments to the program.

For many teachers, especially at the middle school and high school levels, delivering this quality of instruction requires professional development to acquire literacy teaching methods and strategies: A focus on literacy may also require some teachers to reconceptualize their roles. Secondary teachers often think of themselves as teachers of their subject matter, and may respond to these new demands for building the literacy skills of redesignated English language learners by saying, “It is not my job to teach English or to teach reading.” Administrators can support these teachers by reminding them that they are first and foremost teachers of students, and they are accountable for finding ways to develop their students’ abilities to understand and engage with their subject matter.

Let us consider for a moment what outcomes we can and should expect from well-implemented programs. Here again, our STAR data can be our North Star for guiding us toward increased program effectiveness. Drs. Thomas and Collier’s research that I mentioned earlier contains some parameters based on gains in standardized test scores for determining whether or not our programs will succeed in closing the achievement gap. Here we must review a basic statistical concept: The normal curve. Since SAT-9 scores are somewhat distorted when we report them in terms of National Percentile Rankings, Thomas and Collier use Normal Curve Equivalent scores as indicators of the gains that we should look for in effective programs for English language learners. Here is the progress that we should see for most of our second-language learners as we move toward closing the achievement gap, when we define the goal as having students’ achievement at the 50th percentile.

The typical program for ELLs shows gains of 1-3 NCEs per year. This equates to closing the achievement gap in 8-12 academic years.

An effective program for ELLs gains from 4-6 NCEs per year. These programs can expect to close the achievement gap in 5-6 years.

An outstanding program for ELLs gains from 7-9 NCEs per year. These programs close the achievement gap in 3-4 years.

Research shows us that the most successful programs for language minority students do not depend on any one philosophical point of view or ideological underpinnings. Successful programs require leadership and teamwork among administrators, teachers, parents, community members and students over a sustained period to yield the best results.

Is this easy? No, clearly it is not. I don’t think that Dr. Rivas invited me here today to tell you that you have an easy job, or that we have found the simple and easy solution to the challenges of educating language minority students. The voters of California were led to believe that the problem with the achievement of English language learners was bilingual education. Consequently, they expected that voting to restrict bilingual education would be the convinced them that they were right. However, you and I know that simplistic solutions usually don’t work. Some politicians and many in the media, even some policy analysts, have imposed from outside oftentimes only aggravate and compound the problems we face in our schools. This is why our accountability to English language learners does not end with increased test scores and higher rankings on the API. Our responsibility to this growing population of students must include our commitment to advocacy.

We must advocate for sound and coherent policies and regulations to support English language development. We must communicate with our legislators and other policy makers about our challenges and our needs for funding and resources we require to meet our responsibility to these students and their families. We must tell our Department of Education, our State Board of Education and the Commission on Teacher Credentialing specifically what instructional materials and teacher competencies are essential for effective implementation of our program for language minority students. As administrators, you have the most valuable knowledge and skills of your teachers with expertise in educating language minority students to tap into in making decisions and in gaining support for sound policies at the state and local levels. Use these to the fullest extent possible and ignore those shrill voices in the political arena that denigrate the motives and professionalism of bilingual educators. Support your English immersion  teachers who are struggling to make sense out of incoherent regulations and divisive rhetoric to implement sound programs and create supportive classroom environments and use appropriate teaching strategies for bilingual learners.

Being accountable FOR and accountable TO English language learners is a great responsibility, but none of us will deny that nothing short of the future of California depends on the extent to which we can rise to the challenge.



Thomas, W. P., & Collier, V. (2001). A national study of school effectiveness for language minority students' long-term academic achievement. Washington, D.C.:Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence. [On-line] Available: