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ELL education
Second-graders at Dunn Elementary in Kentucky. Credit: Luba Ostashevsky

Around 5 million children in U.S. schools are learning English as a new language, about one in ten students. English learners represent the fastest-growing student group nationwide. More than ever, education leaders must design policies and instructional practices to best support these students.

Kentucky is at the forefront of this challenge. From 2000 to 2010, the demographics in the Bluegrass State shifted dramatically: the number of English learners grew a whopping 306 percent.

And yet, as a recent Hechinger Report article recently highlighted, the state’s data systems make it extremely difficult to distill a clear picture of what is working with English learners. You can’t diagnose or treat a problem that you can’t see.

Related: Closing gap for immigrant students under Common Core in Kentucky is a moving target

It’s not just Kentucky. This is par for the course across the U.S. Almost every state needs to be clearer and more transparent about the limitations of current data for these students.

English learners — perhaps more than any other group of students, given the intersection of their unique linguistic and academic trajectories — present a unique data-gathering challenge. Policymakers need to be more forthright about this.

Current data-tracking for English learners has two big problems. First, these students — by definition — have not yet mastered English. Their performance on English math, English reading, or English science tests is not always valid. If these students score poorly on math and reading tests, this doesn’t mean they — or their teachers — are fundamentally flawed or failing. They are learning (or teaching) a new language, a process that takes around 4 to 7 years based on a variety of factors. It’s unfair to be schizophrenic about this bottom-line reality. Based on federal definitions of English learners, these students are supposed to be those who can’t demonstrate content knowledge on exams because of language. We shouldn’t be surprised — or punish educators — when the students we’ve identified as such perform that way.

Secondly, English learners are a constantly overturning group of students. Once an English learner becomes proficient at English, her achievement data moves out of the English learner tributary into the “mainstream” designation of all K–12 students. Experts call this the “revolving door” phenomenon, “the gap that can’t go away.” As soon as students progress and reach English proficiency, they lose the English learner label. So, her hard work and achievement never boosts the “English learner” category overall. She usually leaves the group just as her achievement levels begin to resemble native-English speakers.

This problem is fairly intuitive. Yet all too often, policy leaders and analysts will broadcast misleading statements on English learners. Half-truths. For example, they will acknowledge that it takes years to learn academic English and, in the next breath, bluster over the “achievement gaps” of English learners with graduation rates and national reading and math assessments.

Related: In a conservative corner of Arkansas, schools welcome immigrants

There’s a helpful old Yiddish proverb here: half-truths are whole lies. So: the bottom line on interpreting current data on English learners? Proceed with caution.

To be clear, there certainly are real achievement gaps emerging for some English learners, and we are far from currently educating English learners in utopian, ideal, or even particularly effective ways. But, to pinpoint gaps honestly and target interventions, we have to respect what state data can accurately tell us — not what we wish it could.

Related: Schools are under federal pressure to translate for immigrant parents

Fortunately, some states are innovating with new data policies.

One important reform is the creation of an “ever English learner” category to track outcomes for these students over the course of their entire K–12 education. This is exactly what Oregon did in 2013. The initiative arose after state leaders recognized current data tracking made it impossible to comprehensively evaluate how they were doing with English learners. They partnered with researchers from Oregon State University to design and implement new data rules that would capture — and allow for comparisons between — the achievement for current, former, “never” and “ever” English learners. From this change, they found that graduation rates of twelfth-graders who were former English learners were virtually the same as native English speakers.

Washington State and New York state are two of only other states with similar “ever English learner” policies.

Another meaningful data point to track is “long-term” English learners. California has led on this issue, passing a groundbreaking law in 2012 to require a common definition and reporting of long-term English learners.

Related: How one Mississippi community copes with influx of Hispanic students

In 2014, advocates then used these data to determine that nearly three-quarters of the state’s English learners in grades 6-12 had languished in schools for more than seven years without achieving English proficiency. This is a data point that should elicit alarm. That is, our education system is most likely failing students if — after a fair, appropriate window of time for language learning — there are still large numbers of students not mastering English.

Now, the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, also includes a similarly-promising requirement for tracking long-term English learners under Title III. States will have to report the number of English learners who have gone to school for five years or more without attaining English. But this requirement is not a part of Title I’s report card system, and so it is unclear if or how this data will be made usefully accessible to the public.

These ever- and long-term English learner policies represent important steps to get data-tracking for English learners right. As eager as we are to find new, promising ways to support these students, innovation and measurement go hand in hand. Picture a chemist in a lab with colorful, bubbling liquids in glass tubes. As she experiments, she carefully records results, reflects, tweaks, tries something new, and — through this process — distills key insights to push her field forward.

Education policymaking should work similarly. As they experiment with new strategies and interventions, leaders try to create such feedback loops and get temperature checks on what (and how) our schools are doing through important — if imperfect — data points. From an economic perspective: what return on we getting on our investment of public dollars? As a moral matter: are we doing right by these kids?

English learners — perhaps more than any other group of students, given the intersection of their unique linguistic and academic trajectories — present a unique data-gathering challenge. Policymakers need to be more forthright about this.

They have wide room to rethink data policies that would provide better information on how schools are supporting these kids.

Because if the data we have does not tell an accurate story about what we are trying to measure, that method is purely madness.

Janie Carnock is a program associate in the education policy program at New America, where she provides research and analysis on policies related to dual language learners.

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