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

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has completed its analysis of SEA reporting of charter school data for school years 2011-12 and 2012-13, including academic achievement data and graduation rate data, for all charter school students and English Learner students who attend charter schools. Based on this analysis, at the end of April 2014, NCES staff developed a memorandum for the Data Strategy Team that explains the analyses conducted and describes the steps the EDFacts team has taken to provide technical assistance to SEA staff and the charter school community to address potential nonreporting. The NCES memorandum states that part of the recommendation -- "determine the steps needed to address nonreporting" is "in progress." The memorandum describes various actions Education has taken including presenting information on federal reporting to charter school stakeholders and preparing a white paper regarding ELL students in charter schools, with an emphasis on federal data reporting. Activities in progress include (1) conducting monthly reconciliations to ensure EDFacts has in its directory all charter schools and (2) clarifying school year 2014-15 file specifications so that missing data can be differentiated from zero counts. GAO will close this recommendation when efforts that are currently in progress have been completed. The agency did not provide an update for FY15.

    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

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: Education has taken some action that might enable it to phase out the LEA- and SEA-level ELL data that GAO found problems with. Education changed the time period covered by another ELL dataset so that the data will be a count of all ELLs enrolled on October 1. This will enable better comparisons between ELL counts and data on all students, which are also collected as of October 1. Education plans to assess whether it can phase out the dataset GAO found problems with after Education collects and reviews school year 2014-15 data. GAO will close this recommendation when these plans have been implemented and completed. The agency did not provide an update for FY15.

    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


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