Testimony Before the House Education and the Workforce Committee
Chairman McKeon, Chairman Castle, Congressman Miller, and Members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to participate in this morning’s hearing.
The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the resulting shift to formula funding have changed the education business of teaching English Language Learners (ELLs) in schools around the United States in some fundamental ways.
Under NCLB, states and school districts are now responsible for showing progress by students who are ELLs under the requirements of both Title I and Title III. Students are tested both for academic content as well as for progress toward English fluency. States must also track and report on the number of students attaining English proficiency each year.
Since NCLB became law, every state has upgraded its monitoring of the academic performance of English language learners. A common trend has been toward a single statewide method for identifying, assessing and redesignating ELLs. Previously these had varied from school district to school district and defied comparison of student performance.
NCLB requires that all teachers in any language instruction program for English learners be fluent in English. While this may sound like an obvious requirement, it was not always the case. In Massachusetts in 2003 some four dozen bilingual education teachers were dismissed because they were not fluent in English – an action which their union challenged in court.
It has become a commonly-heard complaint about NCLB that schools are failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress largely because of unrealistic requirements in the law for English language learners and students with disabilities. There have already been several alternatives plans introduced that would each have the bottom line of reducing accountability for academic results for both of these subgroups, or even removing them from the NCLB accountability system. I have not seen a single alternative that increases accountability for results in these programs.
But increasingly, evidence fails to support this observation. According to U.S. Department of Education data released in February of this year, of those schools that did not make Adequate Yearly Progress nationally, just 4.2 percent missed because of the achievement of the English Learner subgroup only, 13.2 percent missed because of the achievement of students with disabilities only, and 1.0 percent missed because of the achievement of both of these groups but not for any other reasons.
Further, as was documented recently by the Aspen Institute, increasing numbers of students in these two subgroups are being excluded from NCLB accountability because of a loophole in the state reporting requirements due to privacy concerns.
With the Committee’s permission, I would like to mention some additional observations about NCLB that you are less likely to read about in your daily press clippings. All told, there has been a major upgrade in the transparency and accountability for academic progress for English language learners as a result of the reforms of NCLB. There is no shortage of upward trends where students’ test performance is concerned, either. And my own unscientific observation is that spending seems more centered on the classroom.
There has even been an increase in the number of ELLs receiving free tutoring under the law’s Supplementary Education Services provision since NCLB was first implemented, thanks in large part to an increased capacity to serve them among both public and private sector providers. To mention one positive example, a community-based afterschool tutoring provider I had the chance to work with in Chicago, Julex Learning Systems, has expanded to serve thousands of Latino ELLs over the past 3 years, and produced average gains in English reading of over one grade level of progress per student.
As I testified to this Committee in 1999, before NCLB, data on student performance often revealed very low amounts of progress, including progress toward English fluency. Selective omission of test scores was common in reporting on competitive grants. There were federally-funded programs that failed to demonstrate that a single child demonstrated any measurable progress toward English fluency. The curricula for students and also for professional development programs for teachers frankly reflected the program’s lack of emphasis on results.
One area the new accountability of NCLB has shown to be a problem is the low rate at which English language learners are being reclassified as proficient in English. Often in states like California, Illinois and Texas, test scores for English learners have increased while these transition rates remain between 8 and 10 percent.
In Illinois between 2002 and 2004, 50 percent of English learners scored at the Proficient and Advanced levels in math, and 37 percent did so in English reading and language arts. But fewer than 9 percent of English learners were redesignated as proficient in English.
California schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell was describing this “noticeable gap” in his own state last year when he remarked that “it is critical that California school districts continue to review their reclassification procedures as well as the current academic support they provide to English learners.” Transition rates this low represent a poor track record, regardless of what method of teaching English you subscribe to.
Finally, I would respectfully suggest that the Committee consider the following policy recommendations as it continues to examine these critical provisions of NCLB:
1. The current formula for determining starting points for Adequate Yearly Progress can produce unrealistic objectives for the lowest-performing schools, especially those with large language-minority populations. I see this as an unintended consequence that could be solved by changing the formula to eliminate the requirement that starting points match the performance of schools at the 20th percentile in the state.
2. Ensuring consistency in reporting requirements so that privacy concerns are not misused to exclude students or groups of students from the NCLB accountability system.
3. Currently the use of different, individual testing accommodations when giving standardized tests to English Language Learners varies greatly from state to state. Little scientific research exists on the validity of these different accommodations. Because NCLB links federal education dollars to students’ performance on these tests, it is essential that permitted accommodations be both valid and consistent.
I deeply appreciate the opportunity to share these observations with you to today and look forward to any questions you may have. Thank you.
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