This piece comes to us courtesy of Stateline. Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

If a U.S. student learning English were to drive across the country, he would find that in some states he would be classified an “English-language learner,” eligible to receive extra support. In other states, the same student would not qualify for the special designation--or the additional help.

In California, for example, English-language learners spend part of the day focused on learning English. The rest of the day, teachers help them learn the same material as native English speakers, with some modifications. For example, they might be divided into smaller groups with other limited English speakers, or receive a preview or review of the lesson in their native tongue.

The label matters, because under the federal Civil Rights Act, schools are required to provide English-language learners with additional services to ensure they master English as well as the material other students are learning.

The wide variety in policies also creates headaches for students who move from state to state, or even from one school district to another, as they may suddenly find themselves lumped into a new category.

Now that nearly all the states have agreed to adopt common standards in English and math, known as the Common Core State Standards, some states are striving for a common definition of an English-language learner. The task likely will take years, given the political and policy thickets that need to be cleared.

A common definition would help English learners to receive better educations, said Robert Linquanti, project director for English Learner Evaluation and Accountability Support at WestEd, a nonprofit education research organization based in California, and one of two co-authors of a recent report.

“If I’m a parent with a kid who’s been designated [an English learner], I want to know that the educators at the school have enough understanding about where my kid’s language proficiency is and where they’re aiming to have my child go,” Linquanti said. “If we have varying definitions…it’s much less likely my students will get a coherent set of services.”

California, which has about 1,000 school districts, has “1,000 different definitions of what’s an English learner,” Linquanti said. “A kid could be an English learner in one district, cross the road into another and be considered not an English learner. It has an effect on the quality of instruction a kid can receive.”

From the school years 2002-03 to 2009-10, the number of limited English proficient students in K-12 nationwide grew by 7 percent, to 4.65 million. California has the highest percentage of English-language learners with 23 percent of enrollment in public schools in 2010-11.

Among those prodding the states to agree on a definition is the federal government, which gives money to the states to help English learners but struggles to evaluate how well states are using it.

The U.S. Department of Education’s latest biennial report to Congress on Title III funding to states for English learners cautions, “Each state has its own standards, assessments, and criteria for ‘proficiency,’ for both English proficiency and academic content proficiency, as well as its own identification and exit criteria for English proficiency. Thus, the same child could be designated ‘proficient’ in English or in mathematics in one State, but not in another.”

The federal government cannot force the states to agree to a common definition of English learners, but it has created financial incentives for states to do so.

States that belong to any of the four groups that are developing standardized tests for either the Common Core or to measure English language proficiency have agreed to establish a common definition within those groups of an English learner as a condition of federal grants. The two groups that are developing tests for the Common Core are Smarter Balanced and Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). The two groups that are working to develop tests to measure English language proficiency are English Language Proficiency Assessment for the 21st Century (ELPA21) and Assessment Services Supporting ELs through Technology Systems (ASSETS). Most states belong to at least one of the four groups.

Those working on developing assessments for the Common Core will have to decide what kind of accommodations to allow for English learners – no easy task when school districts and states have such varying definitions. Under No Child Left Behind, English learners are allowed to take standardized tests for language arts in their native language for up to five years, for example. Other accommodations for English learners may include extra time to take tests, dictionaries and having access to recorded instructions in their native language.

The Council of Chief State School Officers has been working on the issue as well. The organization, which represents the top education officer from each state, has a task force on English-language learners and in September convened a group of experts and stakeholders on the subject of a common definition of English learners. The group recently released a report to outline important issues and chart a path for discussions.

The report outlines a four-stage process for English learning: an initial screening to identify students who might be eligible for services, an evaluation to confirm whether a student is an English learner, determining a standard for English proficiency, and deciding how and when a student can graduate out of English learner status.

Currently, even the first step of that process – typically a written survey sent home to parents to determine if a child might be eligible for English support services – varies tremendously. Some states ask parents three or four questions and some ask more than 20. The wording on such surveys also has major implications. Parents may wonder, for example, if a questionnaire is aimed at determining citizenship status, which could influence how they respond.

Similarly, deciding when a student no longer needs additional support is a complicated and critical decision. How advanced should the student’s reading, writing, listening and speaking skills be, and how much weight should be given to each?

According to the CCSSO report, taking a student out of English learner status too soon might set him up for failure. But keeping him in too long “can limit educational opportunities, lower teacher expectations, and demoralize students.”

“Having uniformity on criteria is really important,” said Kenji Hakuta, a national expert on teaching second languages at Stanford University.

Another complication is that while states such as California, Texas, Florida, New York and Ohio have large populations of English learners, others have very few. H. Gary Cook, a research scientist with the Wisconsin Center for Education Research who co-authored the CCSSO report, said that 70 percent of the school districts in World-Class Instruction Design and Assessment, a consortium of 33 states working on English language learning issues for which he directs research, have fewer than 100 English learners.

Daniel Wiener, administrator of inclusive assessment in the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, would like to see more consistency across state lines—but he doubts a common definition is attainable.

“There are laws about which tests can be translated, if any, how you get in to EL status, how you get out – it seems unlikely that we’re all going to be able to come to agreement on all of this,” Wiener said.

Still, he said the conversations are worth having.

“It seems like a noble effort that will be useful but may not end up where we want it to end up.”

Earlier on HuffPost:

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  • 1. Modern school supplies

    Gone are the days when students were set for school with a three-ring binder and some No. 2 pencils. Now, parents say they're making expensive runs to local craft stores each time a project is assigned and are even furnishing their students with their own laptops. "You have to have a computer, and then you have to have the programs the school runs," says Jodi Drange, a parent from Montana whose daughter goes to <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/montana/districts/laurel-h-s/laurel-high-school-12096" target="_hplink">Laurel High School.</a> "They never have enough time at school [for assignments] and they won't get their project turned in unless they can work on it at home." If your child needs a laptop, consider a refurbished model that can be significantly less expensive, Florida parent Krause recommends.

  • 2. Extracurriculars

    For the Krauses, costs of the fall play, the spring musical, and a trip for a thespian group competition were straining the family's budget. "[My daughter] was talking about also wanting to get into softball, and we were like, 'Well, we don't know if we can afford the equipment if you want to continue to do drama,'" Krause says. "It's getting ridiculous, cost-wise, to continue to fund all these things through the school." Participation in important but increasingly costly after-school programs may necessitate a family conversation, says Carol Ranft, a mother who lives within Georgia's <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/georgia/districts/gwinnett-county-public-schools" target="_hplink">Gwinnett County Public Schools</a> district and who was paying $450 a year for her son to play lacrosse. "I think that's probably one of the bigger questions for parents: As the cost of those kinds of activities increase, are their students willing to put in their time and effort into a cause or an activity?" Ranft asks. "Is it as worthwhile to them for their time as it is for the parents' cost?"

  • 3. College prep

    It's important for college-bound high schoolers to be ready for their next step, but taking Advanced Placement tests, which cost $87 each, PSATs ($14), and SATs and ACTs ($49 and at least $34, respectively) can get expensive. [Get tips on <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/test-prep" target="_hplink">college test prep</a>.] "Fifty dollars doesn't seem that bad, but most kids take [the SAT] two or three times before they <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/applying" target="_hplink"> apply to college,</a> so that can add up," notes Karen Schoonover, chief academic officer and principal of Pennsylvania's <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/pennsylvania/districts/new-hope-academy-cs/new-hope-academy-cs-16756" target="_hplink">New Hope Academy Charter School,</a> where low-income students get test fee waivers. If testing costs will be an issue for you, investigate waiver options with your school's guidance counselor, Schoonover recommends. Schoonover's daughter took college prep further, with subsequent costs. Through a dual enrollment program at <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/pennsylvania/districts/west-york-area-sd/west-york-area-senior-high-school-17432" target="_hplink">West York Area Senior High School,</a> she took college courses for $250 each, amassing 17 credits by graduation--which would have cost about $12,000 to earn at a university, her mother estimates. "It saved me a lot of money in the long run," Schoonover says. "I wasn't really prepared in her junior year to start writing checks for tuition, though."

  • 4. Transportation

    Even getting to and from school can get pricey. Confronted with the option to pay $1,500 a year for a school bus to come, the Krause family decided to drive their daughter both ways each day instead--a cost of about $150 a week, Krause estimates. For students who have a bus option but would prefer to transport themselves, there may be an additional cost, too: "If you're a senior and you're looking forward to driving your car and parking at a high school lot, parking fees have gone up," AASA's Domenech notes.

  • 5. Special occasions

    From senior trips to prom tickets, parents may find themselves opening up their wallets frequently--or facing the crestfallen faces of their teens when they hear the word "no." Even graduating from public high school can be costly once gowns, caps, tassels, and ceremony tickets are purchased. "I know this is all optional, but it's part of the high school experience, and it's all hidden costs," says Yvonne Johnson, a Delaware parent whose daughter goes to the <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/delaware/districts/charter-school-of-wilmington/the-charter-school-of-wilmington-4580" target="_hplink">Charter School of Wilmington.</a> "It's not always easy to say no to them, [but my daughter's] going to college, and you've got think about all those expenses." [Find out <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/paying-for-college/articles/2011/09/13/get-your-kids-financially-ready-for-college-early" target="_hplink">how to talk to your children about money</a>.] The balance of costs and involvement will differ for each family, as you work as a team to figure out what you can pay for--and what you think you should. For the Montana-based Drange family, for instance, having no money saved for college was "the trade-off," mother Jodi reasons. "My kids are super, super involved in everything--I just think it's part of a well-rounded education, so we pay," Drange says. "We might not to do this or that, you know, 'cause I think the kids comes first in our lives."