Note: this post uses two terms to refer to language learners: dual language learners (DLLs) and English language learners (ELLs). As part of our Dual Language Learners National Work Group, New America uses the term DLL to denote students who are learning English even as they continue to develop basic proficiency in their home language. These students are generally eight years old or younger. We generally use the term ELL to refer to older students who are learning English at school but have developed basic proficiency in their home language.

In the waning days of 2014, as the days reached their shortest and the cold its deepest, a small bit of dual language learner news sparked up here in Washington, D.C. The Department of Education agreed to allow Florida an extra year before including dual language learners and English language learners’ test scores in school accountability systems (as part of the state’s No Child Left Behind waiver). That is, DLLs and ELLs may now be enrolled in Florida schools for two years—rather than one—before their proficiency rates are included in accountability calculations. They will still be tested, and their academic growth will still be included in accountability systems after one year in Florida schools. (Sidenote: proficiency measures are those that capture student mastery of content and skills for a particular grade level. Growth measures capture students’ progress over time, whether or not they achieve proficiency.) Ed Week has the full story here.

As a matter of policy, politics, and research, this is contested turf. That is, it’s not clear that there is a right answer for when DLLs and ELLs are ready to be assessed, much less when their scores can be validly included in accountability systems. As is usual with language learners, the policy puzzle hinges on how similar and how different they are from their monolingual peers. As a matter of equity, it’s good that they be assessed and included in any data portfolio that claims to illustrate how schools and districts are performing. That is, they should be treated the same as other students. And yet, DLLs and ELLs may have different linguistic developmental needs than monolingual students, and that the assessments in use are rarely designed with these differences in mind. After wrestling with these concerns, policymakers usually try to retrofit assessment policies to reflect that fact.

In short, there probably isn’t a “correct” policy here. The number of years before DLLs and ELLs’ scores are included in these systems is probably less consequential than ensuring that they receive high-quality supports at school. Of course, it is easier to determine the quality of supports if their academic progress is monitored, but the timing of the stakes involved is probably not especially critical.

But when it comes to policy reforms in Washington, questions of substantive merit are never the whole story. What about the politics? What about the symbolism?

Well, the Department’s concession to Florida is notable for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a reversal of the administration’s earlier position, which was that No Child Left Behind’s testing rules for DLLs and ELLs clearly required states to include these students’ test scores in accountability measures after one year in public schools.

Second, it’s indicative of the Department’s new willingness to use waivers to adjust core elements of NCLB’s core approach to DLLs and ELLs. Obama and Duncan have been criticized by some advocates for failing to incorporate these students’ needs in their reforms thus far. New York has also sought similar flexibility from No Child Left Behind’s DLL/ELL assessment rules. Florida’s successful bid will make it difficult for the administration to turn away similar requests from other states.

Third, the news broke right before a major holiday, which is when the administration (like most administrations) tends to release uncomfortable education news.

Finally, the waiver is notable because it comes at a time when pushback against required assessments seems to be growing. Teachers unions have joined Republicans in Congress in calling for fewer tests and lower stakes for whatever assessments remain. Republican education committee chairs like Rep. John Kline (MN) and Lamar Alexander (TN) have signaled that they may pursue an end to NCLB’s annual testing mandate.

While I remain skeptical that the mandate will be meaningfully changed—mostly because I doubt that NCLB will actually be reauthorized this Congress—the nation’s seeming anti-testing mood certainly provides an intriguing backdrop for the Department’s willingness to give more flexibility around the stakes attached to DLLs and ELLs’ assessment results.

Of course, the politics around this move and the broader testing mandate are extremely complicated. Civil rights groups, DLL and ELL advocates, and many others have complained vociferously about various provisions of NCLB, but almost all cite the law’s assessment data pieces as critical reforms. These data illuminated the yawning achievement gaps between different subgroups of students, including between language learners and monolingual English speakers.

The data also made it possible to develop more complete accounts of students’ academic growth, which illuminated areas of schools’ success and failure that were invisible when they only assessed at the end of grade spans and measured academic proficiency. If a student is three years behind grade level reading in fourth grade, and makes two years of reading growth that year, she would score “not proficient” at the end of the year. Without annual assessments that illustrate her benchmark achievement each year, her dramatic academic growth is impossible to see.

Is ED’s move the opening of the floodgates towards fewer—and less consequential—assessments for DLLs and ELLs? Or is it simply another tweak to suit a few states’ preferences for how their education systems include DLLs? We’ll see.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Conor Williams

Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams