Education Needs to Further Examine Data Collection on English Language Learners in Charter Schools

GAO-13-655R: Published: Jul 17, 2013. Publicly Released: Aug 15, 2013.

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George A. Scott
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What GAO Found

GAO was unable to compare ELL enrollment in charter schools to ELL enrollment in traditional public schools because Education's only available data on school-level ELL enrollment were unreliable and incomplete. Specifically, for over one-third of charter schools, the field for reporting the counts of ELLs enrolled in ELL programs was left blank. These blank fields cannot reliably be interpreted to mean that the charter schools did not have ELLs enrolled. Education officials told us that these school-level ELL data do not have a data steward (that is, an office responsible for overseeing the quality of the data) and that the quality of the data is not examined on a regular basis. A definitional issue may have resulted in states excluding some students from the reported counts, and some charter schools may have failed to submit required data to their states. Education officials said they had not systematically studied charter school nonreporting but acknowledged that states sometimes have difficulty obtaining data from charter schools. Some charter schools with blank ELL counts were also missing data from other important datasets, such as those on school performance, which suggests potential broader problems with charter school reporting.

Education has a new ELL school-level data collection effort underway that will address the problem with the definition used in the current school-level ELL dataset. However, Education has not articulated how it will address the broader problem with charter school nonreporting that prevented us from completing our study. Further, Education plans to stop collecting school-level data for the ELL dataset with the problematic definition, but it plans to continue collecting these data for the local educational agency (LEA) and state levels.

Why GAO Did This Study

GAO began a study to compare ELL enrollment in charter schools to ELL enrollment in traditional public schools. For the study, we obtained ELL enrollment counts for school year 2010-11 from Education's only available dataset containing the necessary school-level data. In accordance with Government Auditing Standards and GAO policy, we assessed the quality of the ELL data as part of our study and found problems with the data's quality that prevented us from completing the study. This letter addresses: (1) the quality of Education's data on ELLs in charter schools and (2) the efforts taken by Education to improve its collection of ELL data from charter schools.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is recommending that Education systemically evaluate the extent of charter school nonreporting across other data sets and explore whether collection of the poorly defined ELL data can be phased out at the LEA and state levels, if the data quality problems are not addressed.

For information, please contact George A. Scott at (202) 512-7215 or

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To more fully understand and address nonreporting of charter school data, the Secretary of Education should conduct a systematic evaluation of other important data sets such as, datasets on academic achievement and graduates/completers to determine the extent of charter school nonreporting, assess underlying reasons for such nonreporting, and determine the steps needed to address nonreporting.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

    Status: Open

    Comments: Education said that it was aware of problems with charter school reporting and that it had efforts underway to improve the completeness and quality of charter school data prior to the GAO study. Specifically, Education said that it is developing a complete and accurate directory of charter schools and that this is a first step in ensuring high quality reporting because schools must be included in the directory before student counts can be reported for them. Education also stated that the lessons and outcomes from the directory review are informing its development of a charter school reporting workbook, which will assist states, along with traditional and charter school districts and authorizers, in reporting complete and high quality data. Further, Education said the technical assistance it provides to states and the attention it is giving to the charter school directory will encourage closer examination of the charter school data that states report to Education. We believe these efforts can improve the collection of charter school data, however, these efforts are not designed to provide a clear picture of the extent of nor reasons for charter school nonreporting, and we believe a systemic evaluation could be useful for this purpose.

    Recommendation: Because the problems we identified with the school-level English Language Learner (ELL) data also affect the LEA-level data, the Secretary of Education should explore whether the collection of the Local Educational Agency (LEA)- and State Educational Agency (SEA)-level counts of ELLs enrolled in English language instruction educational programs can be phased out, if the data quality problems are not addressed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

    Status: Open

    Comments: Education said it is exploring how phasing out this data collection would meet the needs of various data users and impact the Common Core of Data, which is a compilation of information on all public schools and school districts in the United States. Further, its Office of Civil Rights and Title III office are discussing the option of providing instructions and other guidance to states and districts on the definition of "English language instruction educational programs" in the data collection in order to improve the quality and quantity of responses. Education said it plans to continue collecting these data at the LEA and SEA levels during this evaluative phase.

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