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Senate Passes Bill to Expand Language Opportunities for Students

July 7, 2016

Seal of Biliteracy

Today, the Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed legislation that updates the existing statute relative to English language education in public schools to encompass the latest and best practices serving English Language Learners (ELLs).

An Act for language opportunity for our kids, also known as the LOOK Bill, removes the current mandate requiring schools to use Sheltered English Immersion (SEI), or English-only programs, as the default ELL program model, thereby giving schools the flexibility to establish programs based on the unique needs of their students.

“This bill empowers parents and schools to develop high quality educational opportunities for English Language Learners, so that language is not a barrier to future success,” said Senate Committee on Ways and Means Chair Senator Karen E. Spilka (D-Ashland). “Further, the legislation includes my bill to create a new State Seal of Biliteracy to encourage more students to study a foreign language, expanding future career opportunities and promoting global trade. In our global economy, knowledge of other languages and cultures is a true asset.”

For some children, moving into an English-only program too soon has proven to stunt academic growth and have major implications on future educational success. This has become a growing problem as the number of ELL students in Massachusetts continues to rise. Since the year 2000, the number of ELL students in Massachusetts has almost doubled to over 85,000 students.

As the ELL student population continues to grow, so does the achievement gap between them and their English as a first language peers; in 2015, only 64% of ELL students graduated from high school, as compared to 87% of all Massachusetts students. Of the 64% who graduated, only 34% enrolled in college, and 27% finished. In an effort to reverse these trends, the LOOK bill removes the one-size-fits-all requirements to better accommodate the diverse needs of the Commonwealth’s ELL students.

Rather than mandating new Language Acquisition Programs or dismantling current programs, this legislation removes the barriers to selecting the best programs for Massachusetts students. School districts may choose from any comprehensive, researched based instructional program that includes subject matter content and an English language acquisition component. These programs may include Sheltered English Immersion, Dual Language Education, or Transitional Bilingual Education.

The bill also encourages a high level parental choice and involvement in selecting, advocating, and participating in English learner programs. Under the bill, schools districts must notify parents annually of their rights to choose any ELL program offered in the school. Parents also have the right to select or reject a program based on the educational needs of their child, and are allowed to advocate as a group for a district to adopt a specific language acquisition program.

Furthermore, this bill establishes a Parent Advisory Council composed of parents of students enrolled in ELL programs for districts with language acquisition programs that serve more than 100 ELL students or in which ELL students are more than 5% of the district’s school population. Their duties will include advising districts on matters that pertain to the education of students in ELL programs, meeting regularly with school officials to participate in the planning and development of ELL programs, and participating in a review of school or district improvement plans.

To prevent ELL children from being left behind, this bill requires greater tracking of students to evaluate how effective these programs are for each child. Under the legislation, every ELL student must participate in a statewide assessment system and take an annual standardized test, the results of which will be confidentially provided to the parents. These results will then be used by schools to determine how effective the programs are.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is also required to conduct onsite visits to schools every six years to evaluate effectiveness of ELL programs and establish an educator endorsement for teachers in dual-language programs.

Additionally, the bill seeks to recognize the value of bilingualism and biliteracy as skills essential to improving career and college readiness and competitiveness in today’s global economy by establishing a Seal of Biliteracy. The seal will be placed on a student’s diploma or transcripts to formally recognize high school graduates who have met certain academic benchmarks, as determined by DESE, in one or more languages in addition to English.

The bill now moves to the House of Representatives.

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