Ensuring student success: Supporting bi/multilingual students after exiting English learner programming

April 8, 2022

Lea este artículo en español.

Meet Ivan, a fourth-grade bilingual student in Ohio. A year ago, he met the state’s English language proficiency (ELP) criteria and exited the English learner (EL) designation. As a result, this year Ivan did not receive English as a second language (ESL) services and all his coursework was in English. Several of his teachers noticed that he often struggles in class, and they have linked these challenges to his previous designation as an EL. Given that Ivan no longer qualifies for EL language support, district leadership has considered creating a “reentry program” for students like him. As a C-SAIL study found, oftentimes local, district and state education agencies find themselves with many students like Ivan who have exited EL programs but appear to need additional language support. In this article, we’ll examine the legal requirements to bi/multilingual students who exit EL programs and recommendations to enhance the services.

Although there are federal guidelines for the identification and reclassification of bi/multilingual learners into English learner programs, the implementation of policies at the local level is oftentimes complicated. As previously discussed in From False-Positives to Advocacy: Shifting Deficit Perspectives in the Identification of English Learners, educators should use caution when identifying students as ELs. The same can be said for setting and implementing procedures that exit students from EL services. More complicated yet is the monitoring and support that happens after the students are reclassified from an EL program.

A strong resource for educators with guidance on policy and practice on this matter is “Chapter 8: Tools and Resources for Monitoring and Exiting English Learners from EL Programs and Services” from the English Learner Tool Kit published by the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) in 2015 and updated in 2017. As indicated in this chapter, “after students have exited an EL program, LEAs must monitor their academic progress for at least two years” (p. 2). This means that local education agencies (LEAs) —the school districts and/or school sites — are required to have processes and procedures in place to monitor the academic performance of bi/multilingual students like Ivan for at least two years after having exited EL programs. The monitoring process may be conducted by teachers through observation instruments and other data gathering tools, as shown on pages 6–8 in the OELA document linked above. Additionally, educators may use digital tools (like those presented on pages 9–10) to track student progress on assessments.

A key recommendation to enhance the monitoring process of students who have exited EL status is to ensure that their voices and those of their parents are taken into account. This means going beyond academic measures to ensure that bi/multilingual learners are not erroneously placed back into EL services. In the case presented at the start of this article, Ivan’s teachers observed him struggling in class. In order to have a full picture as to why that is the case, they should incorporate his voice and that of his parents in the documentation process. Opportunities for student and parental opinions can provide much needed insights and inform the need for proper support.

Another federal requirement is that school districts report for four years on bi/multilingual students who have exited services and are meeting state academic standards following their reclassification from the EL program. This means that schools must be transparent to their communities by providing data on how these students are doing academically. These measures are often found in school and district level report cards generated as part of the states’ accountability systems. Just as with the previous recommendation, schools and districts should provide narratives to accompany the data sets. These narratives could feature the voices of students, parents and teachers alike. In the case of Ivan, although the monitoring for language services will expire after two years, his school is still mandated to report his academic performance for a total of four years after exiting the EL program. The additional data may help evaluate the EL services provided to students like him. If Ivan and other students are consistently underperforming after having exited the EL program, his parents and other community members may demand different services and support for bi/multilingual students. This may include the advocacy for bilingual education programs that continue beyond the students’ EL designation.

A solution proposed by a district administrator in Ivan’s case was to reenter him into the EL program. Guidance from OELA’s linked document indicates that students may reenter an EL program only if parents provide consent and the process for reentry — including a score from a valid grade-level ELP assessment — is well documented. The concern for many educators and parents in taking this action is that bi/multilingual students who have already demonstrated ELP may be placed back under the EL designation erroneously. In order to avoid misidentification, schools and districts may instead invest in bilingual education programs that continue to service students who have exited the EL program. In places where bilingual education is not possible due to lack of staffing, resourcing and/or funding, district and school leadership should provide opportunities for ALL teachers to acquire new knowledge, skills and tools to support bi/multilingual students. This means that although students have already exited EL services, educators should continue to provide necessary language support. In Ivan’s case, instead of having all his coursework in English, he should be presented with bilingual support in his native language and/or ESL support. This approach requires robust infrastructure to support bi/multilingual students like him, regardless of the EL classification. In supporting all bi/multilingual students alike, educators will also challenge deficit approaches that only assist students who carry the EL label.

There are clear legal requirements to help Ivan now that he has exited EL services. Among these are that his teachers must monitor his academic progress for at least two years and that his school must report on his academic performance for at least four. As an effective practice, it is important that both Ivan’s voice and that of his parents be taken into account on all decisions about his learning. Additionally, his school should consider bilingual education approaches to support students like him who have exited EL programs, so that they may continue to make progress in their language and academic learning. In taking these steps, educators working with Ivan will ensure his academic well-being without having to return him to the EL designation.

About the author
Samuel Aguirre is the director of WIDA Español and assistant director of consortium relations. In this position, Sam bridges Spanish language development with English language development to support bilingual education of students in the U.S. and abroad. His life experiences as an emergent bilingual in the U.S., work as an educator in the classroom, advocate working with culturally and linguistically diverse communities and director of multilingual services at a state education agency provide a strong foundation for his role at WIDA.

About the reviewers
Mariana Castro serves as deputy director for the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and as lead developer in various projects related to multilingual development. Her current research is related to language practices of multilingual students, curriculum and instruction in dual language immersion programs and teacher professional learning through the lenses of social justice and advocacy.

Nelson Flores is an associate professor of educational linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. He has collaborated on several research projects focused on the education of bilingual students in U.S. schools. His most recent collaboration has been with The Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning (C-SAIL), where he is studying the historical development and contemporary implementation of standards-based reform for students officially classified as English Learners.

About the research
This article was written using data from research conducted at The Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning (C-SAIL) and funded through a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) of the U.S. Department of Education.


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