No Child Left Behind and English Language Learners

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No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was intended to be education's answer to "separate but equal." Between 1979 and 2007, the number of school age children who spoke a language other than English at home increased from 3.8 to 10.8 million (NCES, 2009). This represents an increase from 9 percent to 20 percent for this time period. Spanish is the first language of approximately 12 percent of all students in public schools. More than 400 different languages are spoken by the 5.5 English Language Learners (ELL) in the United States. 49 percent of Hispanic fourth graders were classified as proficient in basic reading compared to 77 percent proficient white students on the same test. In math, 69 percent of Hispanic fourth graders were proficient compared to 91 percent for white students (NCES, 2009).

Only 4 percent of eighth grade ELLs and 20 percent of students classified as "formerly ELL" scored at the proficient or advanced levels on the reading portion of the 2005 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NCES, 2009). ELLs have some of the highest drop-out rates. They also are more apt to be placed in lesser skill groups. Since NCLB was implemented in 2001, there appears to be an increase in the number of high school ELLs not receiving a diploma because they failed high-stakes tests even though satisfactorily completing all other graduation requirements.

The United States is becoming more and more diverse both ethnically and linguistically. The percentage of ELLs in schools is on the rise more swiftly than the real numbers. While the number of students with restricted ability in English has grown exponentially across the United States, their level of academic achievement has lagged radically behind their language majority peers.

ELLs academic performance levels are significantly below those of their peers in nearly every measure of achievement. In the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 29 percent of ELLs scored at or above the basic level in reading, compared to 75 percent of non-ELLs (NCES, 2009).

The Good

The NCLB Act has drawn a good deal of desired awareness to the achievement gap of ELL students. Under NCLB, the academic progress of every child, including those learning English, will be assessed in reading, math and eventually science and social studies. This will provide parents and teachers with information as to how well the students are performing and states will be held accountable for results (NCLB, 2001). The law has generated some benefits for ELLs by drawing attention to these students, and making their performance count. NCLB requires that students are to be tracked as a subgroup and teachers and administrators are more concerned about what is working and what is not working. They also are more cognizant of looking for what could work with ELLS.

Most states now have standards for children learning English as a second language. Annual assessments based on those standards and targets are to ensure more students are progressing and reaching English language proficiency over time (NCLB, 2001).

NCLB requires that all children, including ELLs reach high standards in English language arts and mathematics. In addition, Title III of NCLB requires ELLs to reach proficiency in English in several areas including reading, writing, listening, and speaking and that their progress be assessed annually (Abedi, 2004). Schools and districts must help ELLs, among other subgroups; make constant improvement toward this objective as measured by performance on state tests, or risk stern consequences.

States and districts must ensure that there are highly qualified teachers in all classrooms, including those with ELLs. NCLB does not dictate a particular method of instruction for learning English and other academic subjects. Districts and schools have the prerogative to choose the methods of instruction that best meets the needs of students, including methods of instructing in another language or in English (NCLB, 2001). The law is flawed but it does focus on English language learners and makes their achievement count.

The Bad

ELLs are the fastest growing population in our public schools and many of them are actually born in the United States, the children of immigrants (NCES, 2009). The challenges for ELLs are difficult. This population continues to swell speedily in volume, with largely soaring concentrations in a small number of states. Accurate ELL identification remains a challenge. As currently implemented, ELLS are to be assessed under the same conditions in testable subjects as proficient English speakers. Many states and school districts are not tracking high school graduation rates for ELLs; the fastest growing population of students (Zehr, 2009). NCLB was supposed to correct this. Only eleven states met their accountability goals for ELLs under NCLB in the 2007-2008 school year (Zehr, 2009).

NCLB intended to make teacher quality improvement by having teachers attain "highly qualified" status. But "highly qualified" does not mean the teacher of ELLs is highly qualified to teach ELLs (Harper & de Jong, 2009).

High stakes testing is forcing instruction to change from inquiry, lifelong learning to teaching to the test by using a method called "drill and kill". Teaching to the test is eliminating the opportunity for teachers to teach students higher order thinking skills (Ravitch, 2010). This reduces time that teachers are able to teach creativity, self guided inquiry, and motivational topics for all students. ELLs are being taught test taking strategies instead of content related objectives. The use of test prep worksheets and "drill and kill" exercises does not address the need for instruction in academic English.

To make adequate yearly progress (AYP), each district and school is required to show that every subgroup has met the state proficiency goal in reading and math. Accurately assessing these students in English, which is mandatory by law, is very demanding, costly, and time consuming. The validity of AYP is in jeopardy when schools inconsistently label English proficient students (Abedi, 2004).

NCLB gives states authority to categorize ELLs. Different states and even school districts within a state use different ELL classification criteria. Also, the ELL subgroup stability remains inconsistent when ELL students reach proficiency level and are moved out of this group. This directly affects the accuracy of AYP reporting (Adebi, 2004). States with high ELL student populations in their school districts face greater challenges when teaching ELLs and making AYP as compared to states with sparse ELL student populations (Abedi, 2004). ELLs need time and preparation to learn academic English. Unfortunately, in many ways, NCLB is increasing the achievement gap by placing greater demands on teachers to provide test scores that will contribute to the school making AYP.

Possibly, the most toxic flaw in NCLB is its legislative command that all students in every school must be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014, including students with special needs, students whose native language is not English, students who are homeless and lacking in societal advantage, and students who have every societal advantage but are not interested in schoolwork (Ravitch, 2010). If they are not, then their schools and teachers will suffer the consequences.

What Can Be Done?

Teachers must focus on teaching reading. Abedi (2004) states that ELL students who are better readers perform better. Reading is the key to all academic subjects and without proficient reading skills, all students, including ELLs will do poorly on all tests (Abedi, 2004). Teachers should be teaching and not worrying about ways to make sure that they make the scores needed in order to keep teaching.

Focus on ELLs performance, both for individuals and groups to identify patterns of improvement or lack of improvement, ideally using multiple measures (Adebi, 2004).

The ELL subgroups must remain stable over time. When a student's level of English proficiency has improved to a level considered proficient, that student is moved out and not counted in that subgroup (Abedi, 2004). Testing must be equitable for all students especially ELLs. Academic achievement tests are constructed for native English speakers. Modifying language on test questions to lessen the level of needless linguistic and cultural bias could increase performance of ELLs (Abedi, 2004). Lack of academic English skills place ELLs at a greater disadvantage for understanding what is being assessed. Testing should be fair for all students. NCLB has placed undue test performance pressure on schools with large numbers of ELL students. This is especially unrealistic when schools may still struggle with the same limited school resources as before.

We must have a clear vision of what is considered a good education (Ravitch, 2010). Goals should be meaningful and attainable and not based on a seemingly unreachable ideal. As a nation of immigrants, it is absolutely essential that we meet the needs of those students learning English as a second language. It has long been a challenge within the classroom to simultaneously teach English alongside the other mandated subjects such as mathematics, writing, science, and social studies. Along with this, best practice teaching modalities must be identified and used and teachers must be given appropriate training to implement these best practices. Along with this, funding must be provided to adequately implement these teaching best practices. Teachers must have training in order to carry out these objectives.

Lastly, lawmakers must look at NCLB and determine its attainability. Is the mandate for each student to be proficient in English language arts and mathematics by the year 2014 idealistic or realistic?