Are Your ELs Ready to Exit ESL?

How do you know if your English learners (ELs) are ready to exit their ESL program?
Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, public schools must ensure that English learners can participate meaningfully and equally in educational programs. ELs should not be exited from programs until they have become proficient according to a reliable English language proficiency assessment.

The Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education has published guidelines and resources for students and parents on their website: Schools’ Civil Rights Obligations to English Learner Students and Limited English Proficient Parents. The Education Commission of the States has published a chart comparing measures that schools across the country use to reclassify students as English proficient.

Length of Time ELs Are in ESL Programs Can Become a Civil Rights Issue

It is important that ELs do not exit too soon or too late. According to the OCR documents mentioned earlier, students who are exited too late may be limited in their access to the general curriculum and this can become a civil rights issue.  Those who are exited too soon may not be able to adequately participate in content-area learning in the general education classroom.

Monitoring of ELs After Exiting

ELs must also be monitored by local education authorities (LEAs) for at least two years after they are exited to ensure that they

  • can participate in the general education content area classes
  • have not been prematurely exited
  • have had academic deficits remedied that were incurred while they were is ESL programs

In addition, LEAs are now required to report on the percentage of former ELs that meet state standards for four years.

How ESEA Affects EL Exit

According to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), state educational agencies must use reliable assessments that test reading, writing, listening, and speaking. When ELs exit a program, they must be able to participate in grade-level subject-area classes.

What about students who do not score a “proficient” on assessments of content-area subject matter?  Well, according to ESEA, exiting students do not have to score “proficient” to exit ESL programs because many of their English-speaking classmates do not score at that level. They just have to be able to participate in the grade-level instruction.

WIDA Exit Criteria

Currently, 37 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, as well as Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands, participate in the WIDA ConsortiumWIDA Exit Criteria state that ELs are generally reclassified when they have achieved an English language development level that allows them to communicate socially and participate in academic classes with mainstream students without modified materials and texts.  According to WIDA, ELs being considered for exit should achieve the following:

  • understanding and speaking  conversation and academic English well
  • near proficient in reading, writing and content area skills
  • require only occasional support in English language development

The needs of our English learners are best served when teachers and administrators who work with them  know the laws that affect the exit or reclassification of English learners.  Reading the documents posted mentioned in this blog post will help reach this goal.


About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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3 Responses to Are Your ELs Ready to Exit ESL?

  1. Judie Haynes Judie Haynes says:

    Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to your question. In many states the test score is considered the only criteria for exit. in others, like New Jersey, there are multiple measures. We look at report cards, and classroom teacher recommendations, A test score does not determine that decision. So the answer to this question depends on the state you live in.

  2. Hima says:

    Can a school keep a child in ESL status based on a test conducted once a year? Can other factors be considered to determine whether a child should remain in ESL? If so, what are the other factors?

  3. That was typo, Albert. Thank you for pointing it out. We’ve fixed it.

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