Determining Proficiency and Monitoring ELs: What’s the Procedure?

Typically, this is the time of year when K–12 schools and districts would be receiving student performance data from their annual English language proficiency assessment, though this depends on when the assessment is administered. When the data are returned, schools begin to have conversations around how students performed, areas of strength, and/or opportunities for growth across four domains of language. In addition, program-related questions may be asked—questions such as, “has this student reached proficiency in English?”

Reaching Proficiency: What Does This Mean?

The answer to the aforementioned question depends on several factors:

  • where you are in the United States
  • what English language proficiency assessment is administered
  • how your school, district, and state determine proficiency

It’s important to know what criteria are used to determine proficiency. Consider the following examples from three different states that illustrate how performance on an annual English language proficiency assessment is used to determine when an English learner (EL) has attained proficiency in English—which would also be when they are “exited” from language support services.

State A: Uses a single, predetermined score from their annual English language proficiency assessment to determine when students have reached proficiency. There is limited flexibility in exiting students who have not obtained the required score.

State B: Uses a single, predetermined score from their annual English language proficiency assessment and a range of scores from the students’ performance on a state-wide English language arts assessment to determine when students have reached proficiency. There is limited flexibility in exited students who have not obtained the required score.

State C: Uses multiple, predetermined scores from their annual English language proficiency assessment (reading and writing), a range of scores from the students’ performance on a state-wide English language arts assessment, report card grades, and teacher recommendations to determine when students have reached proficiency in English. Local education agencies have flexibility in determining when a student has reached proficiency based on two or more of the scores and recommendations described in the guidance.

These examples illustrate the complexity involved with determining proficiency in English. Although similarities exist between states, there is no one-size-fits-all definition. This can be confusing to educators and EL families if the criteria are not communicated clearly, and especially if they are not adhered to. Schools are required to monitor ELs both while the students are utilizing (or opted out from) EL services on their journey toward English proficiency, and also once ELs have reached proficiency and have exited from language support services.

Monitoring English Learners

Monitoring In-Program

Part of the federal guidance around monitoring ELs states:

School districts must monitor the progress of all of their EL students in achieving English language proficiency and acquiring content knowledge. Monitoring ensures that EL students are making appropriate progress with respect to acquiring English and content knowledge while in the EL program or, in the case of opted-out EL students, in the regular educational setting. (U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Education, 2015, p. 32)

The U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition has an entire chapter in their English Learner Tool kit called “Tools and Resources for Monitoring and Exiting English Learners from EL Programs and Services” (2016) regarding support for exiting and monitoring ELs who have reached proficiency. Key points from Chapter 8 include the following. Local education agencies must

  • document that an EL has demonstrated English proficiency using a valid and reliable English language proficiency assessment that tests all four language domains.
  • report on the number and percentage of former ELs meeting state academic standards for 4 years. (U.S. Department of Education, 2016, p. 2)

Monitoring After Exit

The processes to determine when an EL should exit and be monitored in mainstream classes work in tandem to ensure that students are making progress toward attaining proficiency in English and meeting grade-level content standards. Monitoring ELs usually involves report card grades and informal and formal assessment.

When I was an English language learner director for a district, I drastically reduced the paperwork involved with monitoring students so that monitoring became more streamlined and student focused, which makes it easier to be in compliance and efficient. Some school leadership teams meet at least annually to discuss ELs who have exited and are now monitored, others meet more often. The English Learner Tool Kit outlines what you should be looking for when monitoring ELs who have exited from EL services. Monitoring must occur for at least 2 years to ensure that

  1. [ELs] have not been prematurely exited,
  2. any academic deficits incurred as a result of participating in the EL program have been remedied, and
  3. they are meaningfully participating in the standard program of instruction comparable to their never-EL peers.
    (U.S. Department of Education, 2016, p. 2)

What is most important is that a monitoring process is in place, that it includes all stakeholders, and that it works in best interest of the former ELs.

What You Can Do

Know and Follow the Guidance and Its Procedure

It is imperative that educators understand the criteria used to determine proficiency for ELs they teach. We would never ask teachers to teach or students to learn without describing expected outcomes. Considering that language learning is a long, complex process that can extend beyond the K–12 setting, knowing and working toward the goal is important for both educators and their students. What happens first, second, third, and so on when students reach proficiency? What is expected of you?

Information about state specific guidance can be found on state education agency websites and/or as part of district guidance. Ideally, this information and the procedures would be shared with educators annually and as part of ongoing professional learning sessions as appropriate.

Inform Others: Share the Responsibility

I’ve had a number of conversations with educators who teach in the same school and service the same students, but some are aware of their district and/or state exit criteria while others aren’t. This is problematic for several reasons, such as a student never being informed of their progress toward proficiency or teachers not being informed of such milestones. Ultimately, it is our students who suffer. Informing school leaders, teachers, parents, and students of such guidance is not only a federal mandate but also the right thing to do to reach and exceed students’ language and academic goals.

Next month, my blog is dedicated to communicating with parents of ELs. We’ll talk about communication as part of relationship building, advocacy, and sustainability. Regardless of the learning format, face-to-face or online, parent partnerships are an essential component of student success.


U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Education. (2015). Dear colleague letter. English learner students and limited English proficient parents.

U.S. Department of Education. (2016). English learner tool kit.

About Ayanna Cooper

Ayanna Cooper
Ayanna Cooper, EdD, is a consultant, author, keynote speaker, and advocate for culturally and linguistically diverse learners. As owner of ACooper Consulting, she provides technical assistance to state departments of education and other clients with the goal of improving outcomes for students. She emphasizes the importance of building capacity to develop and sustain English language programs, use English language proficiency data, and improve instructional practices. She is currently serving on the TESOL Board of Directors.
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One Response to
Determining Proficiency and Monitoring ELs: What’s the Procedure?

  1. Gerry McCain says:

    Have you come across this text? I think it is a very useful and easy to use book for any teacher working with ELs with special needs. Determining Difference from Disability: What Culturally Responsive Teachers Should Know (2018). Routledge.

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