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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

District Accountability Reviews Focused on English Language Learners

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
May 13, 2011



At the May 24, 2011 meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, we will provide information to the Board about the district accountability reviews focused on identifying promising practices for English language learners. These reviews were designed to support the Department's efforts to narrow proficiency gaps-one of the Board's goals-through research and dissemination of best practices. This report is an update to the Board; no discussion or action is required.

Context: The Charge to Close Proficiency Gaps for English Language Learners

Statewide, over 67,000 students learning English attend our public schools. These students represent 7.1 percent of the total student population. English language learners (ELLs) are a subset of the total number of students whose first language is not English (FLNE), who represent 16.4 percent of the Commonwealth's students. Other than English, the three major first languages of Massachusetts students are Spanish (8.1% of all students), Portuguese (1.4% of all students), and Chinese (0.7% of all students). FLNE students who are still learning English must learn content while working toward oral and written fluency in English. In 2010, only 22 percent of ELLs across the state achieved proficiency in English language arts and only 24 percent achieved proficiency in math. Across the state, we need to implement more effective strategies so that ELL students are able to master content along with learning English more rapidly, so that proficiency gaps can be significantly reduced.

In April 2010, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's Proficiency Gap Task Force published a report entitled, "A Roadmap to Closing the Proficiency Gap." The report challenged the Department to consider policy and programmatic recommendations related to Department objectives, operational structures, and strategies for change. The recommendations included a charge for the newly-named Office of Planning and Research to Close Proficiency Gaps (OPRCPG) to accelerate the Department's efforts to "integrate research and evidence into the statewide drive to close proficiency gaps, and disseminate lessons learned." This specific recommendation was addressed in part through the rigorous data analysis provided by the OPRCPG to support district accountability reviews designed to identify "promising practices" in districts and schools that had experienced success in increasing the achievement of English language learners.

"Promising Practice" District Accountability Reviews Focused on English Language Learners

Mass. Gen. Laws Chapter 15, Section 55A, directs the Department to "review and report on the efforts of schools, charter schools and school districts." This statute requires 75 percent of these reviews to be conducted "in districts whose students achieve at low levels either in absolute terms or relative to districts that educate similar student populations." Previously, the Board has discussed district reviews in low-performing districts, including our reviews of Level 3 and 4 districts. The statute also states that "The remainder of the audits shall be divided equally among districts whose students achieve at high levels relative to districts that educate similar student populations and randomly selected districts." In this memo we are providing the Board with an update on district reviews targeted toward those districts with schools whose students have improved at a greater rate than other districts for a particular subgroup. We have conducted three types of reviews focused on understanding the causes of rapidly improved performance, for three subgroups: students with disabilities, English language learners, and students living in poverty. These reviews are designed to identify "promising practices" that appear to narrow proficiency gaps.

In school year 2009-2010 the "promising practice" reviews focused on District Systems and Practices Addressing the Needs of English Language Learners. The purpose was to identify district and school factors contributing to relatively high and improved achievement for English language learners in selected schools, to provide recommendations at the district and school levels for maintaining or accelerating the improvement in student achievement, and to promote the dissemination of promising practices among Massachusetts public schools. Participating districts and schools were rewarded as part of the Department's program to recognize schools as "distinguished schools" under section 1117(b) of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which allows states to use Title I funds to reward schools that have significantly narrowed the achievement gap.

Selection of Districts

The Department identified 36 Title I schools in 14 districts where the performance of ELL students exceeded the state norm. Department staff analyzed MCAS data from 2008 and 2009 to identify schools that narrowed performance gaps between ELL students and all students statewide. The methodology compared the MCAS raw scores of ELL students enrolled in the schools with the predicted MCAS raw scores of ELL students statewide. The methodology also incorporated whether ELL students improved their performance from 2008 to 2009. "Gap closers" did not have to meet AYP performance or improvement targets, but did have to meet 2009 AYP targets for participation, attendance, and high school graduation, as applicable.

Review Process

A specifically designed review protocol guided the reviews. Like other district accountability reviews, "promising practice" reviews have been grounded in an examination of district performance on the Department's District Standards and Indicators. This particular promising practice review also included performance indicators adapted from the 2009 report of the English Language Learners Sub-Committee of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's Committee on the Proficiency Gap.1 Reviews included a two-day site visit in the district and a two-day site visit in the selected school(s). The reviews sought to identify those systems and practices that are most likely to be contributing to positive results, as well as those that may be impeding rapid improvement. Reports for each of the eleven districts reviewed were posted to District Review Reports.

Findings from ELL District Reviews

The Center worked with an independent research analyst2 to examine the findings in each of the eleven district review reports focused on English language learners to ascertain trends and help identify potential implications for policy and practice. The report, An Analysis of District Systems and Practices Addressing the Needs of English Language Learners, identified four core practices that appear to be making an impact on improving the achievement of English language learners:

  1. The use of teams, clusters, or professional learning communities to concentrate supports and attention to ELL students.
  2. Ongoing and collegial collaboration among regular (content) teachers, English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers, special education teachers, and other support staff; and between school and district administrators.
  3. A strong focus on literacy and extensive in-class student support (e.g., multiple teachers in the classroom) in inclusion classes.
  4. District support to schools in providing effective literacy practices, a culture of inclusiveness, and high expectations.

I would like to highlight two districts in particular that the reviews identified as having implemented a model district strategy for supporting English language learners. Both districts successfully integrated their English language arts departments with their ELL offices in a way that provided more effective and coordinated strategies, professional development, and expectations for teachers without sacrificing among leadership the necessary experience and expertise in educating ELLs. Malden Public Schools combined their ELA and ELL programs in 2009. A single program led by a director of literacy and language acquisition, a long-time ESL practitioner, helped the district strengthen its expectation that content area teachers have a responsibility for students' English language acquisition. All schools provide tiered instruction to all struggling students, regardless of language or special need. Lowell Public Schools combined their ELA and ELL departments in 2008 under a coordinator for reading and ELA who reports directly to a deputy superintendent who is a former bilingual teacher. This integration moved the district further toward integrating language and literacy supports for all students. ELA and ELL staff work together at the district and school levels. ELL students receive support from literacy specialists as well as ESL teachers. Such steps remove barriers created by labels so that more comprehensive support can be offered to the students who need it.

In addition to the four core practices identified, the reviews uncovered other emerging practices, namely:

  • How a core professional development program can focus on sheltering content (making it accessible to ELLs),
  • How parent information centers can serve as a hub for ELL services and intake, and
  • How before- and after-school programs have been used to provide community connections as well as academic support.

The reviews also found that although these districts and schools were selected for success in improving outcomes for English language learners, had not done all that they could to support English language learners more effectively through curriculum refinement, more targeted use of student assessment data, and provision of a more inclusive climate. Specifically, districts struggled to:

  • Develop an ESL curriculum that is aligned with the English Language Proficiency Benchmarks and Outcomes (ELPBO) for English Language Learners,3
  • Use ELL assessment data to make decisions and inform instruction, and
  • Develop cultural competency among district and school staff.

See the Appendix for the complete analysis.

Implications of the analysis

From this analysis, many implications emerged for the Department to consider. Three of the most salient implications are described below, concerning professional development, ELL curriculum development, and improving the use of student assessment data.

The central importance of professional development

Every district and gap closing school included in the ELL district reviews noted the importance of targeted professional development as a key factor in developing an effective ELL program. Few districts in the Commonwealth have been able to optimally respond to their needs in terms of providing the professional development necessary to prepare content teachers to work with the complex academic and socio-emotional needs of ELLs. The Department is examining the current state of professional development for teachers of ELLs in an effort to move ahead with an enhanced model that will better equip teachers with the skills and knowledge needed to educate English language learners effectively.

Developing an ELL curriculum

Many districts included in the reviews have made significant efforts to provide ESL curricula for ELLs that are aligned to the state's frameworks. As we move forward, it will be important for districts to consider the language and cross-curricular academic needs of ELLs. Curricula will need to be aligned with the new Massachusetts frameworks based on the Common Core, yet be modified such that ELLs can access content in a meaningful way. The Department is invested in providing technical assistance to districts in this area.

Using assessment and other data to make decisions and inform instruction

There is strong evidence that effective districts use ELL assessment data to measure ELLs' growth and progress in English and to determine if and when students are ready to be exited from their ELL program to the mainstream. However, few districts are able to take full advantage of ELL student data in a manner that allows them to track their students' growth in terms of language and content. The Department is exploring ways to use both formative and summative assessments as well as other data to follow more closely the successes and challenges of ELLs and to respond to their needs in a strategic and systematic way.

Through our Office of Language Acquisition and Achievement, the Department continues to strengthen the guidance we are providing to districts on effective practices to educate English language learners and narrow proficiency gaps. I will keep the Board updated on these efforts, as well as on the Department's overall work to improve the education and performance of all students across the state.

Download PDF Document  Download Word Document
An Analysis of District Systems and Practices Addressing the Needs of English Language Learners


Last Updated: May 18, 2011
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