Federal act leaving whole states behind
Los Angeles Daily News
May 18, 2005
By Christopher Jepsen, Guest Columnist,
Law unrealistic on time required to learn English as second tongue
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings recently announced a change in the
implementation of the Bush administration's No Child Left
Behind Act that has many California educators cheering -- cautiously.
To meet federal standards, Spellings will allow states more flexibility in
exempting special-education students from testing and in how they measure
schools' success. Even more important, the secretary indicated a willingness to
consider reforming other parts of the act, provided the changes don't weaken
fundamental principles or goals of the law.
For California, one element that urgently needs reform is how the act classifies
and tests students who are not proficient in English. One-third of the state's
public elementary school students -- that's more than 1.5 million children --
are classified as "English learners."
Currently, the schools face conflicting incentives over how to deal with these
students. On the one hand, the act requires California schools to increase the
number of students they reclassify from "English learner" to "English
proficient." On the other hand, the act requires all groups -- including English
learners -- to show improvement in academic achievement.
By themselves, both requirements are reasonable. Schools should strive for
improvement in English proficiency as well as academic achievement among their
English learners. But if students haven't reached a certain threshold of
English proficiency, they simply cannot demonstrate their full academic ability
on tests that are given in English.
Under the current law, increases in reclassification are likely to cause
decreases in academic test scores for English learners because the most
proficient -- and consequently highest scoring -- students are no longer part
of that group. So, with improvement required in both areas, where does the
And then there's the financial lure: Schools now receive additional funding
under the act for each English-learner student they have, but a school loses
that money once it reclassifies a child from English learner to
English-proficient student. So again, where does the incentive lie?
There are other conflicts as well.
Both Proposition 227, which restricted bilingual education, and California
testing requirements assume that students can become English proficient in a
single year. However, a 2004 report by the California Legislative Analyst's
Office predicts that only half of Spanish-speaking students will be reclassified
after six years. In a recent study published by the Public Policy Institute of
California, my co-author and I found that in 2003, the average gains in
proficiency among the state's Mandarin speakers -- the highest-gaining group --
were nearly double that of Spanish speakers, but still well below No Child Left
Behind Act goals.
One problem is that students spend only a fraction of their day in the
classroom, and if they are not speaking English the rest of the time, their
proficiency development is seriously hampered. One California superintendent
noted that playground language has changed from English to Spanish over the
past 20 years. Additionally, many English learners have limited reading and
writing skills in their native language, especially if their parents have
little education and income.
Such students are considered between languages, and accurately assessing their
academic abilities is difficult.
Given these challenges, the goals of the act -- though admirable -- are
unrealistic for California. Policy-makers need to recognize the complex
relationship between proficiency in English and success in
Of course, addressing the act's contradictions is easier said than done. In
terms of test scores, one approach is to focus solely on English proficiency
before worrying about academic achievement at all. Several districts have
instituted supplemental programs on weekends or during school breaks that focus
exclusively on building English fluency.
Whatever the final policy solution, one thing is certain: Fluency in English is
a basic building block for a good quality of life in the United States,
generally determining whether students go on to college and have high earning
potential. Considering the size of California's English-learner population,
educating these students is essential to the state's future economic and social
Christopher Jepsen is a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of
California. His recent publication, "English Learners in California Schools,"
is available at www.ppic.org.
Write a letter to the editor: