The federal Department of Education is finalizing new regulations that clarify, and in some cases redefine, how English learners are included in school accountability systems. Reactions to the proposed rules varied widely in comments filed by state leaders earlier this month.
One major change would ensure that states use consistent criteria to report when students attain proficiency in English. The rules would then require states to use these same criteria in deciding when to redesignate them into mainstream, English classrooms. It is up to states to set their standards for student achievement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
Current law clearly dictates several important goals for schools receiving federal funding to teach English learners: that they attain proficiency in English, be taught to the same academic content standards as other children, and their progress must be assessed annually on standardized tests. The new rules bolster these goals, while they also provide their schools extra testing flexibility, in comparison with other students.
Historically, programs that teach English learners have had some of the weakest accountability for results in all of American public education. Prior to NCLB, federal funding programs required schools to provide little evidence of progress toward proficiency, and in practice many schools demonstrated even less. Some states did not have standard definitions for English proficiency before NCLB was signed in January 2002.
For these and other reasons, education results for this crucial student population have lagged significantly behind, particularly in language arts, presenting a major obstacle to their assimilation. Most 10th grade English learners have been enrolled in schools in this country since the first grade or earlier, and only one in four in U.S. schools today are foreign-born.
California opposed a proposed rule that would require states to use the same criteria for determining English proficiency (and funding for English learners) as it does for redesignating them once they learn English. The state argued that its current system, allowing local school districts to set their own reclassification policies and procedures, would be too difficult to standardize. Eliminating such local decisionmaking, it said, would restrict the role of teachers and parents, “disenfranchising” them from the process.
Last year, California successfully redesignated only 9.2 percent of its English learners, meaning that the average English learner can expect to remain in segregated language programs for more than ten years.
Illinois, on the other hand, was among the states supporting this rule change, although it did oppose others aimed at ensuring that all English learners are included in state tests. In 2006, only 7.8 percent of Illinois English learners were successfully reclassified as English proficient, among the lowest in the nation.
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