Federal law for English-learners faces skepticism
The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to assess annually the academic performance of English-language learners. Critics say the government's targets for English proficiency are too ambitious. The Washington Post (2/18)

Behind the New Law
English-Language Learners Called at Risk

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 18, 2003; Page A04

One in a series of occasional articles on the people affected by the No Child Left Behind Act.

Emma Violand-Sanchez heads the English as a Second Language program in Arlington County, which serves nearly a quarter of the school system's students and is a source of pride among local educators.

The program stresses accountability and uses research-based curriculum and tests, just as President Bush desires, and that's why Violand-Sanchez is steaming mad about the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Provisions in the legislation, which took effect July 1, require expensive standardized tests not aligned with Arlington's ESL curriculum, and demand that students take the exams in English before Violand-Sanchez believes they are ready. Meanwhile, she said, the program is losing tens of thousands of dollars because the law changes the way federal money is distributed.

"We have worked very diligently for the past 20 years in improving our program," Violand-Sanchez said. "And after we have worked so hard to have a program institutionalized, now we have to rework it just to meet some federal requirements that are not going to improve the program at all. Not at all."

The changes she decries will soon affect the nearly 5 million students nationwide whose first language is not English, the fastest-growing student population in primary and secondary schools in the United States.

Federal education officials say the No Child Left Behind law will improve existing programs for what it calls English-language learners (ELL), many of whom have been virtually ignored by public schools in the past. "The intent is that children whose first language is not English are counted and that they achieve the same as we expect all children to achieve," said Maria Hernandez Ferrier, director of the office of English language acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education.

Some of the law's provisions say:

. All students in grades 3 through 8 must be tested annually, in English, in reading and math.

. Over the next several years, these standardized test results will be counted in increasing numbers in the determination of whether a school is labeled a success or failure under the law.

. Schools must assess all ELL students every year in English proficiency.

. States must establish annual achievement objectives for ELL students related to gains in English proficiency, measured by state content standards.

. Schools that fail to progress will suffer financial and other penalties.

Educators across the country are divided about the impact of No Child Left Behind on this population of students. Some are unqualified supporters, such as Hector Montenegro, the new superintendent of the Ysleta Independent School District in El Paso. "It will only help these students," he said.

Others say that while the intentions may be good, many of the law's mandates will create serious complications for schools and children, and that Bush administration efforts to close the gap between English-proficient and ELL students will be counterproductive.

In particular, the critics say, the law ignores research on how children learn a second language by promoting the notion that most students can learn academic English in three years. They also say that in some schools, a small influx of non-English-speakers can skew the overall test scores so much that a school doing well can be labeled "failing."

"It is unrealistic for the federal government to close the gap in three years, even with the most effective [English-language] programs," said Wayne Thomas, a language acquisition expert who teaches and conducts research at George Mason University. "The federal government is going to have to come to terms with that."

Across the country, states are interpreting the law differently -- "Some states get it better than others," Ferrier said -- and most are waiting for their implementation plans to be approved by the Department of Education.

Many state officials said they had very little time to devise their plans and acknowledge having to scramble.

That is part of the problem, said Harvard University Professor Catherine Snow, a language acquisition expert. States are rushing to create new tests, but good tests are developed only over time, she said.

"This notion that by next September we are going to have tests of speaking, listening, reading and writing for English-language learners that can be used as a basis for tracking their progress toward full proficiency in English is completely insane," Snow said.

The rushed nature of the implementation has required some systems to make unusual requests. For example, in Fairfax County, Francisco Millet, director of English as a Second Language and other language programs, said that because the required test in math is not yet available, the state of Virginia has asked federal officials whether schools can temporarily use the scores of a reading test to determine progress in math. Nobody is optimistic that the request will be approved -- and nobody is sure what to do if isn't.

In Arlington, Barbara Fagan, an ESL teacher and language specialist for the county, said the district no longer will be permitted to use an English-language proficiency test it had developed over years, aligned with curriculum and evaluated for reliability. Virginia, in an effort to make testing more uniform across the state, is allowing school systems to choose from three tests, none of which are aligned with Arlington's curriculum.

"The problem is they are saying, 'One fit for everybody,' " Fagan said. " . . . It almost requires us to completely overhaul our testing and change our curriculum."

The issue of how long it takes to learn academic English, not what is called playground English, and what programs work best is central to the debate.

Some educators say that students can learn English well enough to progress in school in three years and that English immersion works best. A number of researchers called that notion nonsense and said it usually takes five to seven years.

Thomas and his research partner, Virginia Collier, conducted research showing that ELL students do best over the long term learning in dual-language programs.

Though some students take less time, others say it is very difficult to master English. Karla Acosta came to the District from El Salvador when she was 13 and entering seventh grade. When she enrolled at Trinity College more than five years later, she said, her English still caused some problems with writing papers. Now a senior, she said she finally feels comfortable writing in English.

"I could communicate in English very quickly, but being in school is something different," she said.

2003 The Washington Post Company