English Learners and Data Gathering: Connecticut Revises Home Language Survey Guidance with REL Alliance Support

A major goal of the English Language Learners Alliance at REL Northeast & Islands at EDC is to build the capacity of its members to make research- and evidence-based decisions about programs and services to better meet the diverse needs of English learner (EL) students. Yet shortly after the alliance formed, in 2012, the members confronted the reality that data about ELs is often unreliable, inconsistent, and even inaccurate, severely limiting the analyses that can be done.

In response, the alliance formed a Data Working Group (DWG) comprised of ELLA members from Connecticut and Rhode Island. Their focus? To examine data-collection practices using the Home Language Survey (HLS) as a test case. Federal law requires that school districts have a process to identify EL students and ensure that they receive the educational services they need, and administering the HLS is a common first step that districts take to meet that requirement. HLS questions can vary from state to state and district to district, making data aggregation and analysis across states or districts nearly impossible.

How the surveys are administered also influences the reliability and consistency of response data. Do district staff properly explain to new families the purpose of the HLS, or do they simply include the survey in a large packet of materials required for school enrollment? Do districts provide translators to parents who don’t speak English? Do districts provide training to school office staff on the purpose of the surveys? What do districts do with the home language data once collected?

As the working group set out to explore these and other questions, they collaborated with REL Northeast & Islands researchers to create a survey tool to collect feedback from district administrators on four factors related to their district’s HLS:

  • policies and guidelines
  • data collection
  • personnel
  • data management

The Rhode Island ELL Directors Network and the Connecticut Administrators of Programs for English Language Learners (CAPELL)—both of which have members in the working group—administered a pilot version of the survey within their states.

REL Northeast & Islands researchers and working group members found several patterns in the Connecticut results, including that many respondents were concerned that the individuals who actually administered the survey either did not understand its purpose or did not administer it correctly. Given these response patterns, the Connecticut ELLA members requested technical assistance from the REL to propose a revision to the state’s HLS guidance.

In 2015, the alliance launched a second Data Working Group with 15 members from CAPELL and Megan Alubicki Flick, ESL/Bilingual Consultant at the Connecticut State Department of Education, which would convene at CAPELL’s quarterly meetings. Carrie Parker, ELLA’s REL researcher, and I facilitated these meetings and also provided the working group members with the latest research on the identification of ELs.

At about the same time, the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) at the US Department of Education published a new English Learner Toolkit with very specific recommendations about the content and administration of HLSs, including three specific questions that should be asked. Carrie and I brought this toolkit to the working group members, who immediately chose to incorporate these questions into their revised guidance.

At the end of the year, the working group presented its final recommended HLS guidance document to the entire CAPELL membership, which voted to support it. In December 2015, the Connecticut State Department of Education endorsed the guidance and posted it on its website.

Key recommendations include:

  • use of the same HLS—with a minimum of the three OELA-recommended questions—by all districts in the state
  • development of an online training module for all district staff administering the HLS
  • translation of the HLS and administration script into the 10 most common languages in the state
  • development of a system for districts to share additional translations in low-incidence languages, as needed

When the guidance was published, Megan Alubicki Flick told REL Northeast & Islands:

I so appreciate your hard work on this project, and I think this is a major service to districts, particularly the smaller ones and especially those with increasing English learner populations, and also to the students and their families. I am hopeful that this guidance will increase our consistency both within and across districts in Connecticut.

Looking ahead, the state intends to support districts with adopting and following the new HLS guidance with the hope this will lead to more reliable and consistent data and to improved identification of ELs, ensuring that all students who need linguistic support in the acquisition of English receive the appropriate services.

The “Home Language Survey Data Quality Self-Assessment Tool” is a REL Northeast & Islands Work in Progress: read more.

Alliance Support Team

Maria-Paz Avery

Maria-Paz Avery is the Research Alliance Manager, State Outreach Manager—leading needs sensing and technical assistance for REL Northeast & Islands—the State Liaison for Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and the Facilitator for the English Language Learners Alliance.