UnidosUS Champions Education Fairness for English Learners and Underserved Students in the Florida Legislature


UnidosUS has filed a bill to ensure Florida’s English learners are are properly assessed for their knowledge in all academic subjects. iStock Photo.

As 2019 ushers in a new governor and legislature in Florida, UnidosUS hopes the state will work to modernize and equalize educational opportunities by expanding academic assessment opportunities for English learners (ELs) and accurately reporting assessment results for all underserved students. In fact, UnidosUS filed a bill promoting native language assessment in the Florida legislature this month.

“These are both issues Florida failed to address when it won federal approval for its education plan last year,” says Jared Nordlund, UnidosUS’s Senior Strategist for Florida.

Last September, after months of revisions, Florida became the last state in the country to receive U.S. Department of Education approval for its version of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal law that governs K-12 education. UnidosUS was one of many civil rights groups to criticize the approval, contending the plan wasn’t fully compliant with the law.

“It wasn’t even well-received by the federal government, but in the end, they allowed things in the plan that they—and we—didn’t approve of,” says Nordlund.

Critics of the Florida ESSA plan say it causes confusion by masking the performance of vulnerable students such as ELs and students who are low-income or have disabilities by creating two school grading systems. Those include its original A-F school grade system and the development of a separate Federal Percent of Points Index (FPPI) to track those vulnerable groups. The plan has also come under fire for not requiring schools to make every effort to provide native language assessment tests, something that could drastically improve the way ELs are placed and supported in their classes and lead to better school grades.

Until this month, UnidosUS’ ESSA campaign focused on working with the previous Governor Rick Scott’s administration and his Commissioner Pam Stewart to revise the state’s ESSA plan for federal compliance. With the 2018 elections in the books, the administration of Governor Ron DeSantis has already begun to make its mark on education by naming former Florida Speaker of the House, Richard Corcoran, as Commissioner of the Florida Department of Education. And while it appears the new administration is on a similar trajectory of the status quo, UnidosUS’s Florida policy team is hopeful these politicians, both of whom have called for greater school accountability, will make good on those promises.

“One way to do that is to learn from the electoral gains made by Hispanics and embrace a fairer education system that will insure all students will be college and career ready by graduation,” says Nordland.

In 2018, voter Hispanic turnout was up 2% compared to 2014 and given that the two highest-profile statewide races were won by razor-thin margins—former Governor Rick Scott vs. Bill Nelson for US senator and Governor DeSantis vs. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum for governor, Nordland says it’s easy to see how influential Florida’s largest swing constituency can be when deciding elections.

His policy team will now spend the next few months educating its constituents about the education priorities by speaking to parents, meeting with lawmakers, mobilizing education advocates, and providing detailed memos explaining how its work seeks to address school accountability and native language assessments.

School Accountability

“Over the past year, the Florida Department of Education (FLDOED) drafted the state’s ESSA plan with little to no engagement with parents, educators, and community-based organizations,” notes an UnidosUS memo on Florida’s public school grading system. It goes on to explain how the state maintained its traditional A-F grading system while creating a “wholly separate” FPPI to measure ELs but no other underserved groups of students.

Apart from including an English Language Proficiency Indicator (an ELP) the memo says this system “still fails to desegregate standardized assessment results by all major racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, low-income students, and English learners (ELs) as required by federal law.”

Critics say providing parents two grades to judge their child’s school that are both non-compliant with ESSA is confusing and redundant. Moreover, it allows schools to be less accountable to the community they serve by not upholding high, rigorous education standards.

“The state kept everything behind the scenes. There was no public weigh-in process at all or if there was, it was an online form to send in your comments and that was it,” says Nordlund. “Florida’s ESSA plan was really just meant to keep the status quo.”

Native Language Assessments

Florida is home to the third-largest Hispanic population in the country and civil rights advocates say there is no excuse for Florida policymakers to have made no effort to comply with ESSA by developing and providing native language assessments to ELs, who represent the fastest-growing segment of Florida’s school-aged population.

“The State of Florida has an opportunity to join states like Texas and Wisconsin and assess incoming students in their native language to accurately gauge their understanding of subject matter content, like geometry, that will lead to proper placement of students, higher assessment test score averages, and higher grades for schools with a large EL population,” says Nordlund. “ There’s nothing more frustrating for a student than being forced to retake a course you already passed. Geometry is geometry regardless of the language you speak.”

He says students’ placement in the appropriate class for their content knowledge is crucial for their future academic success and their emotional well-being.

“The end goal is to have world-class learners proficient in English and Spanish but assessments shouldn’t be a test on your mastery of the English language. They should be a test of your mastery of content,” says Nordlund, adding that native language assessments actually help schools place the kids properly and get them the proper resources, which, in turn, saves time and money.

“We want to see our elected officials champion legislation that will make schools more accountable to parents by having a single school grading system that is fully ESSA compliant and better able to place incoming English learners with Native Language Assessments,” says Nordlund. “Florida has an enormous Latino population, so UnidosUS wants to ensure our Latino youth are provided with the resources they need to be proficient in English and Spanish, as well as college and career-ready by the time they graduate.”

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