From California to Connecticut, immigrant children who entered public school unable to read, write, or speak much English are beginning to gain literacy, thanks in part to an extra push the federal No Child Left Behind Act has given their school systems.
Recent data released in California showed that 43 percent of English learners scored at the “early advanced” or “advanced” levels on the state’s 2003 English Language Development Test. That was up from 34 percent in 2002 and 25 percent in 2001. In Sacramento, where 50 percent of English learners rose to the early advanced or advanced levels, spokeswoman Maria Lopez said that by throwing the spotlight on underprivileged subgroups like English learners, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has made a positive difference.
“It keeps it on the front burner that when they mean ‘no child left behind’ it means just that – no child left behind,” she told the Sacramento Bee. “That is especially true in urban districts where there are a lot of newcomers to the English language.”
A Council of the Great City Schools study of 61 urban systems in 37 states provided tentative evidence Hispanic children are benefiting from a more focused approach. Looking at data through spring 2003, researchers found that 60 percent of the fourth grades tested in those cities narrowed the gap in reading achievement between white and Hispanic students. In Connecticut, the contingent of English learners taking the state’s tests has almost doubled since 2000, in keeping with the NCLB requirements for inclusive testing. While the usual experience is that average scores sag when participation rises, state officials point out that academic proficiency has been increasing faster in the low-income cities where many English learners reside than in the rest of the state.
Both California and Connecticut have taken steps to become leaders in a growing movement emphasizing early English fluency acquisition for immigrant children. California voters passed a 1998 proposition effectively eliminating bilingual education in favor of English immersion (although compliance with the law has been uneven and often slow). A 1999 Connecticut law placed a 30-month limit on the amount of time students can be assigned to bilingual education.
All this represents progress toward meeting one of modern education’s largest challenges. During the 1990s, more immigrants came to the United States than in any previous decade, pushing the number of public-school children with limited proficiency in English well above 4 million – an increase of 105 percent since 1990-91.
NCLB requires federally aided schools to seek testing gains for children in all disadvantaged subgroups, English learners being one. However, the big question is whether this impetus for reform can survive the election-year assault being mounted on it by the National Education Association. The leaders of the nation’s largest teachers union seek to water down testing in favor of vague “multiple measures” of educational progress. They regularly excoriate President Bush for championing NCLB and have endorsed Democrat John Kerry in the expectation he would fulfill their agenda. For the more than 4 million English learners, and their parents, the stakes are high.
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