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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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.

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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

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Education 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.
Closed – Implemented
Education has completed a systematic analysis of other key datasets - those that collect data on free and reduced price lunch, math and reading achievement and graduation rates - analyzing data across two school years. Education also reached out to state educational agency data managers, who identified reasons for charter school underreporting. Education has taken several steps to address underreporting, including additional guidance to charter schools and clarifying guidance for reporting data.
Department of Education 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.
Closed – Implemented
Education received OMB approval that allowed for a more comprehensive count of EL students at the LEA and SEA levels and has already begun collecting this information. This more comprehensive count, coupled with the steps Education has taken to address charter schools under reporting should help address data quality problems GAO identified.

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