No Child Act leaves ESL learners behind

Students unfamiliar with English struggle with tests
Tuesday, May 25, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:08 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

When the parents of third-graders met in March to hear Columbia Public School District representatives talk about standardized testing at Paxton Keeley Elementary School, one mother’s concerns centered on one aspect most parents took for granted.

Seung Hee Han moved to Columbia from Korea last year with her daughter. Han worried that the language of Missouri’s standardized test was too hard and unfamiliar for her daughter, who doesn’t know English as well as other third-graders do.

The third-grade test, which includes reading and writing, also challenges Han, a student at MU. It’s hard for her to help her daughter prepare.

“It is uncommon, even for me,” she said. “We are forced to study harder.”

Other English learners in the district — 385 are enrolled in the English as a Second Language program — are also being challenged by government expectations that seem, to some, inappropriately high.

The U.S. government has shifted from the 1960s philosophy of every school being available to each child to today’s philosophy that every school be accountable for each child. Significant achievement gaps exist between white, middle-class children and their counterparts of other races, ethnicity and economic status.

Most people agree the purpose of new government education legislation — the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act — has merit because it makes schools accountable for having equal education opportunities for every student. But many question the validity of the high government expectations, especially for a group of students who are specifically known to be behind because they haven’t mastered English.

“No Child Left Behind is a good idea because we need to teach all children,” said Patty Wayland, the ESL coordinator in Columbia since 1998. “But to hold ESL students to the same standards as other students is kind of ridiculous.”

English-language learners are a rapidly growing student group — up by more than 150 percent in Missouri in the past decade. In the Columbia district, the enrollment of English language learners is up 25 percent from five years ago, while overall district enrollment has grown about three percent, according to the district Web site.

To close achievement gaps between ethnic and economic subgroups, the No Child Act uses standardized testing data to determine where schools and districts are falling short. Ten subgroups exist, which each must pass state standards of proficiency. Schools as a whole must also pass.

The subgroups — which include blacks, Asians, students eligible for reduced-price lunches and English language learners — are held to the same standards as other students. But English language learners are different than most groups because a language barrier mainly accounts for an achievement gap between them and other students. This barrier is one of the only reasons these children are labeled as struggling.

“Most of the students really respect authority and know education is important and valuable,” Wayland said.

Jamal Abedi, a national researcher on student evaluations and testing, has published many studies about English-language learners in the United States and noticed government standards don’t match the group’s purpose — learning English. The federal government says every child should be proficient in language arts by 2014.

“If English-language learners were proficient in English-language arts, they would not be English-language learners in the first place,” he said in a study. “Indeed, if No Child Left Behind goals were attained, the subgroup would cease to exist.”

If any of the subgroups fail to show adequate progress, the school and district face federal sanctions, including tutoring, transferring and school restructuring. Because many of these things strain already tight school budgets, a lot of pressure, especially on subgroups, comes with the test.

Sharon Hoge, Columbia’s elementary coordinator of language arts, said differences in state and federal regulations about ESL students caused several public schools in Columbia to be labeled as failing by the federal government last year. Columbia only has certain buildings with ESL teachers, so a higher proportion of students attend those schools instead of being dispersed throughout the district.

This year, the Missouri General Assembly didn’t make districts report scores for ESL students. The federal government did, unbeknownst to the district and resulting in several schools getting a grade of “failing.” Some educators say this gap between state and federal expectations is making the law hard for districts to follow.

“No Child Left Behind is a tough thing because in some cases we’re doing everything we can do and we still get penalized,” Hoge said. “There are definitely some glitches, which happens when trying to make a law for everyone in the country.”

The group’s transient nature is one problem with this subgroup — Wayland said immigrant families move often, and also the students aren’t learning English during their whole education career. Once students perform at proficient levels, they aren’t considered English language learners anymore and are removed from the subgroup. The government recently made provisions that a student will be considered as part of the group for two years after being considered proficient, but whether that will be enough is being questioned.

Abedi found that districts with growing numbers of English language learners will have achieving students move up as more and more struggling students move in, which could hurt group scores as a whole.

“This population is pretty mobile,” Wayland said, emphasizing that measuring progress is difficult when students shift often.

Another concession the government made recently is that ESL students can be exempt from being accountable for their first year in the district. Wayland said one year isn’t long enough for these students.

“There is tremendous growth in a year, but they still won’t perform on that English test the same way other kids can who have already been doing this for years,” she said.

Many are critical of No Child Left Behind because it penalizes based solely on a standardized test, a test given only in English. The government recently made accommodations for these students during test taking, but only to allow more time. Research shows that simplifying the language, and not content, improves scores dramatically. Columbia schools were only able to allow extra time.

These recent changes implemented by the government demonstrate the realization that this subgroup has problems different than many of the other subgroups — stemming from lack of knowledge of English.

Wayland would like to see more emphasis on the progress English learners make rather than measuring them against the benchmark of proficiency that everyone is expected to reach.

“Right now it doesn’t give credit for what they’ve learned or compensation from where the students started from,” she said.

Hoge is worried that schools will expect less and make bad decisions to avoid government trouble.

“The law may have to make some changes before we start doing things that aren’t educationally sound to make sure schools aren’t penalized,” she said.

Already the federal government has pushed the envelope for English-language learners in the No Child Act, but many educators want this group to have further considerations.

“Looking at the group and seeing what we can do to help is a positive thing,” Wayland said. “But using that as a basis for punishment and sanctions doesn’t give them credit for what they’ve learned, and it doesn’t give credit to teachers for what they’ve taught.”

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