August 3, 2007


English Language Learners and the Future of NCLB

By Don Soifer

For policymakers and newspaper readers alike, the debate over the best policies for American public education has evolved into a referendum on one, vast federal law — The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Deciding its future will be Washington’s most important, and most difficult, education business between now and the next national elections.

It is commonly heard that one of the areas of the law in greatest need of change is the test score requirements for English learners. Members of Congress often say it is what they hear most frequently from educators and others connected with the public schools in their districts.

Of the alternatives proposed so far, nearly all would result in less accountability for academic results for this crucial group of students. While ostensibly offering schools some relief from the law’s historic testing requirements, creating such a two-tiered accountability approach would do more harm than good to these students and their chances for future academic success.

NCLB brought the nation’s English learners under the mainstream umbrella of educational accountability. It still allows states substantial flexibility to allow a broad range of special testing accommodations, which most states have begun to use more frequently.

As a recent report by the National Council of La Raza described it, “Prior to NCLB… little to no accountability for the learning of these students existed. Most states did not include English Language Learners in their accountability systems.”

As a result, federally-funded bilingual education programs became segregated, second-tier education tracks. Classroom learning was often watered-down from what was being taught mainstream students. Students placed in bilingual education classes were often more likely to drop out of school than to become proficient in English. Even now, in many states they still are. But the rates at which English learners are becoming proficient in English are beginning to improve in school districts across the nation.

The struggles of English learners in U.S. public schools are often treated as an immigration issue. But three out of five are born in the United States, and one in five are the children of parents born in this country. 

Relaxing accountability rules for English learners would lay a dangerous foundation for a new, federally-sponsored segregation system. Schools would have strong incentives to overidentify children as English learners, and to keep them on a separate track insulated from accountability for results. This includes financial incentives (with higher per-pupil funding for students designated as English learners) as well as testing incentives (their test scores would count less, if at all).

Before NCLB, under the old Bilingual Education Act, the federal government funded entire bilingual education programs in which not a single child demonstrated any measurable progress toward English proficiency. School districts received funding directly from Washington under a competitive grant system that no longer exists. Academic progress was usually scant, and schools often practiced selective omission of test scores for what modest progress they did report. NCLB’s “95 Percent” rule now requires that states report standardized test scores for 95 percent of English learners, along with other subgroups of students.

In California, where one-third of all elementary school students are English learners, these trends hold even greater importance. Statewide, only 9.6 percent of English learners were successfully reclassified during the 2005-06 year as proficient in English. This represents steady, significant progress since 7.7 percent were redesignated during the 2002-03 school year, even if the totals are still alarmingly low. But those additional 32,000 students will now have a much better chance of graduating high school with a diploma, succeeding academically, and meeting greater success after high school.

This principle holds true for English learners around the nation. Florida and New Jersey, for example, also have large EL populations, but have transition rates of 29 and 31 percent respectively, far above California’s.

As Washington policymakers debate the future of the No Child Left Behind Act, they certainly face pressure from teacher unions and other established education interests to relax requirements for schools to show results. To do so at the expense of our nation’s English learners would be a costly step backward.

Don Soifer is an education analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

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