What ESSA Means for English Language Learners

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) — just like No Child Left Behind — will still rely on flawed assessments that inaccurately chart the progress of the ever-growing segment of English language Learners, said Penn GSE Educational Linguist Nelson Flores.

“People are trying to sell the Every Student Succeeds Act as this big shift in policy, but it seems like more of the same to me.” -Nelson Flores

What’s wrong with testing?

“The research on the validity of assessments for English Language Learners is mixed at best,” Flores said. “Psychometricians haven’t figured out how to validly assess in ways that don’t conflate content knowledge with language proficiency. So there’s still fundamental flaws in the policy if we’re using tools that researchers say aren’t valid for assessment purposes in order to create accountability systems.”

It’s important to separate content knowledge from language knowledge, Flores said. A student might be great at math, but test poorly if he or she can’t understand a word problem written in English. The results of invalid assessments can have dire consequences for ELL students including inappropriate remediation, misdiagnosis for special education, grade retention and even prevention of high school graduation.

What’s better?

First, schools should do a better job understanding how proficient their students are in English. They can do this with better, grade-level appropriate proficiency assessments designed for ELL students.

Teachers could use this information to follow student’s language progress, and figure out the level of support needed for subject assessments. For some ELL students, Flores said, this should include allowing them to answer in whatever language they are most comfortable.

“Allowing students to use all of their linguistic resources would be — from what theresearch seems to indicate — the most valid way of assessing their content knowledge,” Flores said. “That might be a mix of languages.”

Who is most affected?

ESSA shifts authority from the federal government to states and school districts. Students in the few states that have explicit ELL policies, like New York and Texas, could benefit from this shift, Flores said. But students could suffer in many states that leave policy decisions up to the school district, especially in places that have smaller contingents of ELL students.


  • Nelson Flores studies how children learn language, and how schools help or harm bilingual students with their policies as part of Penn GSE’s renowned Educational Linguistics faculty.
  • Flores is a researcher with the Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning (C-SAIL), based at Penn GSE and funded by the Institute of Education Sciences to study the implementation and effects of the full breadth of college- and career-readiness standards. 
  • Flores advises the School District of Philadelphia as it replaces transitional Spanish-to-English language programs with dual language programs that give both languages equal weight, and he continues to work directly with Philadelphia bilingual teachers to develop Common Core-aligned instruction.
  • Flores can give interviews in both English and Spanish.

Media Contact 

If you are interested in Nelson Flores’ research or would like to schedule an interview, please contact Penn GSE Associate Director of Communications Jeff Frantz at (215)-898-3269 or frantzj@upenn.edu. For TV and radio, the University of Pennsylvania has an on-campus ISDN line and ready access to a satellite uplink facility with live-shot capability.