Skip to Main Content

Understanding the student population: Connecticut’s English learner identification process

January 30, 2018
by Joanna Meyer, Michael Strambler, George Coleman and Clare Irwin

This two-part series on the use of data collection tools to understand and serve English learners emerged from PEER’s ongoing work on supporting young English learners. In Part 1, we focus on Connecticut and Federal guidance about identifying English learners. In Part 2, we will focus on how the data produced from identification procedures can be used to help school districts improve upon their practices aimed at serving English learners.

Much like the country as a whole, Connecticut has a growing population of English learner students. Data from EdSight shows that while Connecticut’s K-12 student population decreased by approximately 19,500 students between 2011-2012 and 2016-2017, the number of K-12 English learner students increased by about 6,500 in the same time period. Additionally, the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) has indicated that since the summer, the state has welcomed nearly 2,000 students from hurricane-affected areas, including many from Puerto Rico. When the language of instruction is English, limited English proficiency can prevent students from accessing the education to which they are entitled.

To address this concern, the Equal Education Opportunities Act of 1974 clarified that state educational agencies and school districts must “take action to overcome language barriers that impede [English learner] students from participating equally in state and district educational programs.” This federal law does not dictate what programs or approaches districts should implement to support English language acquisition, but it requires that districts provide programming that leads to increased English language proficiency among English learner students.

In order to provide effective support to English learner students, districts must identify who those students are, an initial step that is not as simple as it may seem. While many immigrant children qualify to receive English Learner services, others have achieved English proficiency by the time they enter school. Although many U.S. citizens are raised in households where the primary language is English, others are raised in households that speak another language, which may or may not affect their English language proficiency.

Connecticut has long required that districts administer a home language survey at school enrollment to identify potential English learner children who should be assessed for English language proficiency. Until recently, districts were allowed to design their own home language survey and choose their own English language proficiency assessment, which allowed for substantial variation among districts.

As a member of the English Language Learners Alliance at the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands at EDC, Connecticut participated in a working group focused on improving the accuracy of home language survey data. When the Every Students Succeed Act (ESSA) of 2015 mandated that each state implement standardized procedures for identifying English learners, Connecticut was prepared to make this shift.

The CSDE used recommendations from the English Language Learners Alliance working group to publish new guidance on the Home Language Survey in December 2015 and embed a new English learner identification process into the 2017 state ESSA plan. The CSDE’s new policy on English learner identification, accountability and assessment includes a standardized procedure for English learner identification, which requires schools to administer a standard Connecticut Home Language Survey and to use a specific English Language Proficiency assessment to evaluate potential English learners.

Although the CSDE has now defined a clear procedure for English learner identification, questions remain about how much districts have absorbed the new procedures and whether they have the necessary training and resources to implement them. PEER has begun to explore these questions with member districts to learn what additional support might be beneficial.

Additionally, questions remain about the accuracy of Home Language Survey data. In an era where both documented and undocumented immigrants are faced with anti-immigrant sentiment, families may not feel comfortable reporting accurately about their children’s language background. Parents may not be aware that Home Language Survey responses are protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and generally cannot be disclosed. In fact, the CSDE does not ask schools to report individual students’ Home Language Survey responses.

Finally, there are unanswered questions about how schools and districts can use Home Language Survey data to support learning. Whether or not children are eligible for English learner services, Home Language Survey data can help districts to better understand the linguistic and cultural backgrounds of their students. The second part of this series will explore this topic in more detail.

Submitted by Joanna Meyer on January 31, 2018