Working with English Learner Data: A Primer

With ESSA, states are required to make information public about how students are doing in core areas, such as reading, math and graduation. Every state is developing a school rating system, and others are working on accountability dashboards that display specific district performance in multiple areas: test scores, test participation, school climate, graduation rates.... Yet, as school officials put more emphasis on community outreach as part of making the results of educational efforts more accessible, they need to know that the receiving public has some understanding about the data being shared.

That's the idea behind a new report from the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank focused on "the analysis of the movement of people worldwide." "A Guide to Finding and Understanding English Learner Data" is intended to help parents, educators, policymakers and others understand how to access and use data about English learners. At the same time, it provides a clear education in the collection and use of school data for other purposes too.

As researcher Julie Sugarman, a senior policy analyst, explained, even though ESSA stipulates that states publish data, people need to know how to find and use the statistics to help make decisions about "resource allocation, school accountability and program effectiveness."

The report starts by explaining what information school systems collect about their students and families and why. For example, a section on assessment data explains the use of ACCESS for ELLs, an English language proficiency assessment used in 39 states to evaluate how well a student performs in four areas: speaking, listening, reading and writing. Reporting makes proficiency level assignments to individuals to help educators identify students as English learners in the first place and to get them into the right classes.

After a rundown on the various forms of data collected, the report addresses two topics: who has access to data and what they can do with it. That includes coverage of what members of the public can do.

Then Sugarman dives into specific data sources at the state and national levels. While the examples reference English learners, specifically, the explanations and sources of data, for the most part, are relevant to all groups of students. She ends with a warning about the ease with which data can be misinterpreted and how that happens.

"While developing an understanding of how to best access and use the wealth of data available may take some time," she concluded, "building these skills will prove crucial in helping families and other members of the public engage with decisionmakers and support evidence-based policies and practices to improve the education of [English learners]."

The report is openly available on the Migration Policy Institute website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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